A controversial stoppage-time penalty from Richie Towell earned Dundalk a 1-0 victory against Athlone Town at Lissywoollen this evening.
It looked for long stretches of the game as if the hosts were going to pick up their first points since being promoted, but referee Graham Kelly deemed that Declan Brennan impeded Darren Meenan and Towell made no mistake with his spot-kick in the third minute of added time.
Seán Byrne was dismissed for dissent immediately after the decision to compound Athlone's misery as Dundalk recorded their sixth league win of the season.
Kelly left the field to a round of boos from the home supporters after his sending off decision, while Dundalk too felt aggrieved that Kurtis Byrne had earlier been hauled back by Declan Brennan only for play to be waved on.
At the end of a low-quality encounter, where scoring chances were rare and those that were created were wasted, it looked as if Athlone had done enough to secure the first league point of the new campaign in their ninth attempt.
Despite playing without their three first-choice centre-backs and their regular goalkeeper due to injury and suspension, they defended manfully and certainly wouldn’t have been flattered if the game ended in a stalemate.
Athlone’s James O’Brien blasted the ball into the side-netting from 12 yards out in the first minute, while Philip Gorman saw his curling effort midway through the second half loop narrowly wide. Dundalk netminder Peter Cherrie was also forced into an unorthodox save from Seán Byrne late on.
Towell, Meenan and Patrick Hoban all had opportunities to test Craig Sexton in the Athlone goal but spurned their chances. Ruiadhrí Higgins did manage to direct his 25-yard free on target but Sexton easily smothered the tame effort.
Long balls over the top were the primary source of these half-chances and Dundalk rarely looked like title challengers.
James O’Brien and Meenan were the main creative influences but both teams struggled to get sufficient support for their solitary strikers and failed to pick holes in their opponents’ defensive alignments.
Kelly’s decision not to award a penalty for the pull on Byrne’s jersey in the 76th minute drew plenty of ire from the sizable body of away supporters in the ground, but old cliche about contentious decisions evening themselves out certainly was rendered apt when Kelly pointed to the spot in the final minute of injury-time for what looked like legal and minimal contact between Brennan and Meenan.
Athlone’s disbelief at the decision was obvious as their players crowded around the arbiter, which in turn resulted in Byrne being sent off on a straight red card for dissent.
In the final decisive act of the game, Towell struck an immaculate penalty low to the bottom corner of the Athlone Town net, a strike that brought Dundalk back level with Cork City and broke the hearts of the home side.
Athlone Town: Craig Sexton; Stephen Quigley (Ian Sweeney 86), Conor McMahon, Declan Brennan, Barry Clancy; Mark Hughes; Kealon Dillon, Seán Byrne, James O’Brien, Sean Brennan (Jason Marks 73); Philip Gorman.
Subs not used: Graham Rusk.
Dundalk: Peter Cherrie; Seán Gannon, Mark Rossiter, Andy Boyle, Dane Massey; Ruaidhrí Higgins; Darren Meenan, John Mountney (David McMillan 60), Richie Towell, Daryl Horgan (Kurtis Byrne HT); Patrick Hoban (Mark Griffin 82).
Subs not used: Brian Gartland, Chris Shields, Simon Kelly, Gabriel Sava (GK).
Referee: Graham Kelly