University College Dublin (UCD) drew 2-2 with Athlone Town in their opening fixture of the SSE Airtricity First Division after a last-gasp equaliser from the Town.

The College will have their sights set firmly on promotion this season after their third place finish in the 2020 campaign was followed by a narrow loss to now Premier Division side Longford Town in the playoffs. There will be question marks over the effect that the departure of the highly-rated Yoyo Mahdy and Josh Collins will have on the Students hopes of progressing to the top flight, but Andy Myler will be hoping that his four new signings can do more than enough to replace the two youngsters.

Athlone, the oldest club in the League of Ireland, went into the tie as the underdogs as they finished six places below the Students in ninth, and came of worse in both encounters with UCD in last season’s First Division. However, this is a new look Athlone side with manager Adrian Carberry bringing in over a dozen new signings with the arrival of proven Premier Division talent such as James Doona, whilst also tapping into talent from the Leinster Senior League with Jamie Hollywood and Kayleum Rice moving from Crumlin United and Kilbarrack United respectively.

UCD vs Athlone SSE Airtricity First Division 2020
UCD defend against a well-place Athlone Town Corner. SSE Airtricity First Division 2020. Photo: Stephen Kisbey-Green

It was less than 30 seconds after kick off, when Athlone nearly took the lead as captain Kurtis Byrne cut open the Students defence to find James Doona on the left wing, Doona cut the ball back to striker Stephen Meaney who forced a double save from Lorcan Healy in the UCD net. This set the tempo for the first ten minutes with both sides playing at a million miles an hour. The Town were dominant during this period of the game, coming close to scoring again as Byrne latched onto a loose pass from UCD new arrival Sam Todd and hit a looping half-volley from 25 yards which rattled the crossbar.

Completely against the run of play, the Students went one nil up after 20 minutes through midfielder Mark Dignam. After pinballing in the box from a corner, the ball fell to Liam Kerrigan on the edge who struck it first time on his left foot with venom. Shouts of appeal from the UCD players that the ball had crossed the line after hitting the crossbar from Kerrigan’s shot were put to ease as Dignam tapped home the rebound from two yards out.

The College grew in confidence following the goal with Sean Brennan imposing himself on the game in midfield on his debut for the club. The Students came close to doubling their lead just over five minutes after going one up when Town goalkeeper Michael Schlingerman fumbled Evan Weir’s free kick into the patch of Kerrigan; however, Schlingerman managed to recover for his initial error and deny the UCD forward.

The save of the game came from Healy on the half hour mark after College skipper Jack Keaney’s clearance deflected off Byrne and the ball looked destined to nestle into the top left corner. Healy’s cat-like reflexes to stop the goal received a round of applause from the few at the match. This was by no means the last time the UCD ‘keeper was called upon during the course of the game.

Athlone equalised with just over five minutes remaining in the half when Aidan Friel’s cross found Meaney who made the most of the fullback’s ball with a superb header into the far post. This was not the only concern for Myler at the time as talented wingback Michael Gallagher hobbled off with an injury, to be replaced by Evan Farrell, just before the goal. The half finished one a piece with the Town getting the better of UCD for the majority of the half, and would have been leading had it not been for Healy in nets.

The Students began the strongest after the break as they dominated the lion’s share of possession, in contrast to the start of the first half. Despite the positive start, Healy was called into question again with efforts from both Athlone wingers Doona and Adam Wixted, and once again Healy saved his side. UCD nearly went ahead after Weir’s rocket of a free kick from just outside the penalty area went narrowly over the bar.

On 74 minutes, the Students got their deserved goal when Dignam’s penetrating ball found an excellent run from substitute Dara Keane, who’s first touch was exceptional setting himself up to slot past Schlingerman in the bottom left corner. As we approached the latter stages of the game it seemed UCD were the fitter of the two sides as the pressing from the front was relentless from the Students.

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Once the game hit the 85 minute it was clear Athlone needed to throw caution to the wind in search of an equalizer. The Town huffed and puffed in the dying embers of the game but never really created any clear-cut chances. That was until they launched a free kick from their own half up to substitute Shane Barnes who managed to flick on ball to the on running Wixted, who was able to capitalize on an error from Healy. The life of a goalkeeper, from hero to zero with one mistake. A jubilant Athlone managed to rescue a point with the last kick of the game.

Andy Myler’s side will want to build on the positives from the game to ensure three points when they travel down south to Cobh Ramblers next Saturday.

UCD: Lorcan Healy; Michael Gallagher (Evan Farrell ‘35), Harry McEvoy (Luke Boore ‘46), Jack Keaney, Sam Todd , Evan Weir, Sean Brennan, Mark Dignam (Donal Higgins ‘80), Paul Doyle (Dara Keane ‘65), Colm Whelan, Liam Kerrigan (Adam Lennon ‘80).

Athlone Town: M Schlingermann; A Friel, K Cantwell, D Hand, D Daly, D McKenna (J Watson ‘70), J Hollywood, K Byrne, A Wixted, J Doona, S Meaney (S Barnes ‘70).

Callum Buchan – Sports Writer