Athlone Town will carry a small bit of momentum into next week’s crucial relegation six-pointer against UCD after a stunning 79th-minute strike from Ian Sweeney gave them a share of the spoils at Shamrock Rovers’ expense at Lissywoollen tonight.

The Hoops enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in Pat Fenlon’s second game in charge, but were unable to capitalise during a dull first half.

The sustained pressure paid off for the Hoops in the second half as Karl Sheppard broke the deadlock, but they paid the price for not increasing their lead when Sweeney smashed home the equaliser from 25 yards with ten minutes remaining.

Against a frenetic and defensive home side, Rovers were dragged down to a fairly ordinary level during a lacklustre opening half.

But there was no shortage of vim and vigour on both sides and referee Padraigh Sutton had to prevent things from spilling over on a few occasions, but during the opening period the crowd got their money’s worth, paid entirely in energy and commitment.

However, neither side looked capable of moving the ball at pace and opening up the opposition defence.

With manager Keith Long watching from the press box, Athlone appeared to try and keep the ball up at his eye level for long stretches of the first half, using long and high deliveries out of defence in the direction of striker Philip Gorman.

It was apt that the first half chance of the tie in the 19th minute was a result of a bout of chaotic play, with Gorman just failing to latch on to a wild swing from Ryan Brennan that sent the ball forty yards the wrong direction and narrowly too far ahead of the Athlone striker.

A full half hour had expired before there was a meaningful attempt on either goal, and even then, Gary McCabe only got his missed chance due to Athlone failing to clear their lines when they had the chance.   

Athlone had a brief period of ascendancy shortly before the interval, but they were forced to really retreat after the restart as Rovers laid siege to their goal for the first fifteen minutes of the second half.

McCabe had a great chance to open the scoring when he latched on to a Simon Madden cross, but just failed to keep his shot under Ryan Coulter’s crossbar.

It looked as if it was a matter of time before the Hoops finally made their breakthrough.

And Rovers battered the Athlone backline until Karl Sheppard finally gave them the lead, heading home McCabe’s cross twelve minutes into the second half.

Athlone continued to lack imagination and craft going forward so even though their defence remained sturdy, few supporters in the ground could have conceived of any result other than an away win at that point.

Something miraculous was needed to salvage a result for the Town, but after a few weeks in which the club and management have come under fire for jettisoning all bar one of their homegrown players during the transfer window, it was the one local boy still on the books that gave them a vital point.

Ian Sweeney’s 79th-minute goal was an entirely solo creation as the young winger seized on a loose ball around the centre circle, took advantage of the retreating Rovers defence to scythe past two backpedalling defenders and then hit a stunning 25-yard strike inside Murphy’s far post.

Rovers had a chance to reply almost immediately when a throw in wasn’t cleared and the ball sat up for Dean Kelly just eight yards out, but his snapshot was hit straight at Ryan Coulter, who stood tall and batted the ball away to safety.

Other results on the night mean that Shamrock Rovers have now lost vital ground in the hunt for a European place, while Athlone are just five points adrift of both UCD and Bray Wanderers at the foot of the table and closer than they have been all season to a great escape.

Athlone Town: Ryan Coulter; Dylan Hayes, Derek Prendergast, Declan Brennan, Kevin Knight; Kealan Dillon; Seán Brennan, Eric Foley (John Mulroy 67), Mark Hughes, Derek Doyle (Ian Sweeney 70); Philip Gorman.

Subs not used: Stephen Dunne, Roddy Collins Jnr, Thomas Mulroney, Sam O’Connor, Paul Skinner (GK).

Shamrock Rovers: Barry Murphy; David O’Connor, Conor Kenna, Jason McGuinness, Simon Madden; Gary McCabe, Stephen McPhail, Robert Bayly (Patrick Cregg 83), Ryan Brennan (Seán O’Connor HT); Karl Sheppard, Ronan Finn (Dean Kelly 70).

Subs not used: Robert Cornwall, Kieran Marty Waters, Shane Robinson, Craig Hyland (GK).

Referee: Padraigh Sutton.