The race for the Division 1 title will go all the way to the wire after the top two met at The Lawn on Sunday morning and the hosts came out on top with the most unlikely of comebacks. Anything less than a win for Stradbally would have ended their chances of catching the long-time leaders and for over an hour it looked like they had blown their chances.
Right from the off it looked like it was to be Athletic’s day. They took the lead after less than two minutes when a huge punt upfield from Abbeyleix keeper David Bonham caught the Stradbally defence off guard and Joe Bergin raced clear before deftly lobbing Town keeper Matt Kelly from twenty yards out.
The hosts struggled to create any clear cut chances in that opening period and things went from bad to worse for the men in green on the stroke of half time when an even better strike from Bergin doubled his sides advantage. Again it was route one stuff when a long ball upfield found the young striker in a few yards of space. There still seemed to be little danger but Bergin spun quickly and fired an outstanding effort across goal into the top corner from distance.
There seemed little chance of anything but an Abbeyleix win and they had a firm hand on the Division 1 trophy as they enjoyed their half-time break. Stradbally looked all but beaten but after a slow start to the second half they gradually began to threaten David Bonham’s goal. Abbeyleix remained composed but an ugly incident with just over half an hour to go seemed to halt their momentum. Stephen Hawkins, one of their star performers in their excellent campaign this year chased down a long ball with his usual determination. Strad keeper Matt Kelly just beat him to it but neither came out well from the resulting collision that ended their involvement. Kelly received a deep cut to the back of the head, forcing midfielder Alan Delaney to deputise between the sticks for the remainder of the game. Hawkins’ injuries were more worrying. He left the field with a suspected broken jaw and minus a few teeth, and Athletic seemed to lose their way in his absence.
His replacement was Daniel Coffey but the youngster’s first involvement won’t be one he will be overly happy with. He picked up an instant yellow card from referee Pat Geoghegan for an accidental kick that caught Podge Fitzpatrick in the chest. The free didn’t seem to be a particularly dangerous one but Derek Beale had other ideas and his low free to the near post caught David Bonham wrong footed to fire his side back into contention.
Abbeyleix continued to press for the goal that would surely clinch the title and they came within inches of doing just that as time ticked by. With twenty minutes left Joe Bergin powered through the Strad defence and poked a low shot that looked destined for the bottom corner until stand-in keeper Alan Delaney clawed it away with a save that an established keeper would have been proud of.
Things weren’t going so well at the other end however, with young keeper David Bonham clearly struggling to forget his part in Stradbally’s first goal. He looked extremely nervous and those nerves told with just eight minutes left on the clock. Podge Fitzpatrick’s hopeful ball in seemed to sail harmlessly into the keeper’s hands but Bonham took his eyes off it and his next task was to pick the ball out from the back of the net.
The error could well have been a mere blip if Athletic had converted some of the numerous chances that came their way, and with five minutes to go Joe Bergin carved out the clearest of the lot. He jinked inside his man and rolled a neat pass across goal but Daniel Coffey’s side-footed shot rolled agonisingly wide of the right hand post and it would prove to be a costly miss as Stradbally nicked the win on the verge of the full-time whistle.
Again Abbeyleix’ keeper David Bonham will want to forget his part in the goal as he completely misjudged the flight of Damian Murphy’s long clearance and he was left stranded as the ball bounced over his head and into the back of the net to hand the hosts a memorable victory. The destination of the league title remains firmly within Abbeyleix’s grasp, with a home game against Ballinahown as their last game. A win in that will ensure that Stradbally’s mammoth effort here was all in vain while a draw would send it to a playoff. None the less, Athletic will certainly be a lot more nervous now than they were before about that game against a mid-table Ballinahown side, and there could yet be one more twist in this magnificent league race.
STRADBALLY TOWN: Matt Kelly (Alan Mulhall ‘59), Conor Brady, Bill Kelly, Paddy Bergin, Ger Byrne, Alan Delaney, Colin Beale, Podge Fitzpatrick, Damien Murphy, Derek Gorman, James Langton (Jake Byrne ‘45)
ABBEYLEIX ATHLETIC: David Bonham, Tom Bergin, Darren Whelan, Neil Cooney, David Brennan, Eoin O’Brien, Oisin Carroll (Ger Fennelly ‘84), Stephen Hawkins (Daniel Coffey ‘59), Niall Wallace, Joe Bergin, Conor Bergin.
Referee: Paddy Geoghegan