Declan O'Brien's hat-trick proved just enough to give Drogheda all three points as they survived a late fightback from rock-bottom Athlone to win 3-2 at Hunky Dorys Park.
O'Brien headed the Drogs into the lead inside 10 minutes as he got on the end of a Shane Grimes cross, but Athlone had chances to equalise either side of half-time, before ‘Fabio’ doubled the Boynesiders’ lead with another header.
He completed his hat-trick with a low shot on 71 minutes, but the midlanders staged a dramatic fightback as Philly Gorman netted with two close-range headers from corners.
Their efforts came up just short, though, not helped by a straight red card on 89 for former Drogheda defender Stephen Quigley.
The result spoiled Mick Cooke’s first return to United Park since being given the sack at the end of last season, but the midlanders’ boss could take some consolation from his side’s rousing finish which briefly threatened to earn them an unlikely draw.
Athlone’s hopes of picking up a first league point were dealt a severe blow inside 10 minutes when Drogheda struck from their first real attack of the game.
The midlanders lost possession cheaply and Gavin Brennan’s flick released Shane Grimes whose driven cross was met by the head of Declan O’Brien for a closer-range finish.
To their credit, Athlone responded in positive fashion as they took the game to Drogheda at every opportunity, but all too often the final pass wasn’t accurate enough.
Indeed, the Boynesiders looked more likely to concede from their own defensive errors and keeper Dave Ryan was twice called upon to sprint from his goal and make hasty clearances.
There were chances at both ends on the half-hour mark as Athlone’s James O’Brien had a dangerous cross cut out by Alan McNally, and seconds later a Drogheda counter-attack ended with Gary O’Neill being denied by Sean Byrne’s block.
Declan O’Brien should have doubled his tally with a close-range header from a Gavin Brennan corner kick, while former Drogs captain Derek Prendergast was inches away from equalising with a header on 44 minutes, the ball scraping the outside of the post.
The midlanders had another opportunity just after half-time when Philly Gorman latched onto a long clearance but shot straight at Ryan.
O’Neill was then foiled at the other end by a brilliant Paul Skinner save on 50 minutes, but Drogheda doubled their advantage from the resulting set piece as Brennan’s corner was nodded home from close range by O’Brien – poor defending by Athlone.
O’Brien spent the next 20 minutes desperately seeking his hat-trick goal and after a couple of near misses he took a pass from O’Neill and drove the ball low under Skinner for 3-0.
That should have been game, set and match Drogheda, but remarkably Athlone hit back twice in the space of four minutes as Philly Gorman headed home two Sean Brennan corner kicks from close range.
The midlanders then had substitute Stephen Quigley sent off for a high challenge on Brennan as Drogheda held on for the victory.
Drogheda United: Dave Ryan; Gavan Holohan, Alan McNally, Ciaran McGuigan, Shane Grimes; Carl Walshe (Michael Daly 73), Daire Doyle, Eric Foley (Stephen Maher 62), Gavin Brennan; Gary O’Neill; Declan O’Brien.
Subs not used: Paul Andrews, Austin McCann, Ciaran O’Connor, Philly Hughes, Dylan Connolly.
Athlone Town: Paul Skinner; Kealan Dillon (Stephen Quigley 72), Derek Prendergast, Aidan Collins (Conor McMahon 73), Barry Clancy; Sean Brennan, James O’Brien, Sean Byrne, Jason Marks (Ian Sweeney 56); Graham Rusk; Philly Gorman.
Subs not used: Mark Hughes, Niall Scullion, Declan Brennan, Craig Sexton.
Referee: Derek Tomney (Dublin).