Daryl Horgan celebrates his first goal against Cork City. picture: Ciaran Culligan
Not for the first time Daryl Horgan was the difference as Dundalk took a massive step towards the SSE Airtricity League title with a 2-1 win over Cork City at Oriel Park.
Dundalk’s majestic winger has been outstanding this season and he produced on the big stage - and in front of Republic of Ireland manager, Martin O’Neill -yet again - to propel Dundalk four points clear of the Leesiders with just five games to play.
If the 24-year-old's opening goal after just seven minutes carried a bit of luck, his free-kick going in off the back of Cork City goalkeeper, Mark McNulty, the second was pure genius, a solo run that ended with a finish to match.
Cork pulled one back through substitute, Mark O’Sullivan, but they never really launched an onslaught and Dundalk saw it out to take a huge step towards their third league title on the trot.
All eyes were on the team sheets before the game and Dundalk manager, Stephen Kenny, reacted to Saturday’s shock 3-0 defeat to Sligo Rovers by dropping Chris Shields to the bench. Sean Gannon (calf), Ciaran Kilduff (concussion) and Robbie Benson (groin) all sat the game out but Patrick McEleney was passed fit while Alan Keane came in for his first League of Ireland match since October 30, 2015.
The biggest news, however, was the omission of Gary Rogers, the veteran goalkeeper paying the price for a couple of high-profile mistakes over the past couple of weeks. Gabriel Sava started his first league game in almost a year.
There were no surprises in John Caulfield’s line-up. The visitors reduced the gap at the top to just one point with a five goal drubbing of Galway United on Saturday night and they named an unchanged team with the league’s top scorer, Sean Maguire, leading the line against his old club.
It took just five and a half minutes for the game to come to life. Referee, Tom Connolly, harshly decided that Alan Bennett had upended McEleney in full flight and Horgan punished his old club, lifting a free-kick over the wall to see it bounce off the crossbar and hit the net, via the unfortunate McNulty.
Cork responded well to the goal, dictating possession for large periods but it was the champions who looked a real threat when they went forward.
Keane acquitted himself very well throughout and he broke forward just past the quarter hour mark to make room for cross. His delivery picked out David McMillan, who nipped in front of Bennett, but McNulty was equal to his effort.
Bennett was let off the hook by the officials in the 17th minute when McMillan attempted to hook McEleney’s floated centre back across the penalty area. The ball hit the underside of the centre-back's outstretched arm but Dundalk’s appeals for a penalty were waved away.
Caulfield's side enjoyed a decent spell after that, zipping the ball about nicely in the middle third but, with Andy Boyle and Brian Gartland outstanding, Maguire was starved of service.
The Waterford man’s only real involvement came when he was picked out nicely by Gavan Holohan on the inside left but he opted to play the ball across goal rather than shoot, even though the angle looked against him.
Gartland, Garry Buckley and Stephen O’Donnell all made their way into the notebook as the temperature began to rise but it was Horgan who almost lifted the old ground into orbit in the 36th minute.
Picking the ball up about 30-yards from his own goal, he skipped away from Bolger, drove with intent at the Cork back four and fired a stunning drive past McNulty. Sensational.
The pace didn’t let-up in the second-half as both sides went toe to toe again.
Sava did well to get out of his area quickly to clear a Buckley through ball that was intended for Maguire after just two minutes of the restart.
Hat-trick hunting Horgan then had another chance to test McNulty three minutes later but his free-kick flew well over the top of the City crossbar.
Caulfield introduced O’Sullivan for Holohan in the 54th minute and the move had the desired effect as the visitors hauled themselves back in the game less than two minutes later.
Bolger spread the play right to Karl Sheppard and even though O’Sullivan missed the subsequent delivery with his first attempt, he reacted quickly to prod home with his second, aided by a big deflection off Boyle.
Bolger was extremely lucky to stay on the pitch 10 minutes later, the Cork City skipper hacking down substitute Chris Shields - who was inspirational after being introduced - as he made his way towards the penalty area. The referee, though, amazingly opted to keep the yellow card in his pocket.
Dundalk looked the more likely to add to their tally and Bolger did brilliantly to stop Finn pulling the trigger after a well worked move on the left involving O’Donnell and Horgan. Kevin O’Connor did just enough to pressure Mountney to fire wide with the loose ball.
Five minutes of additional time were added but Cork never really looked like getting an equaliser and the final whistle sparked scenes of wild celebration at the end.
Dundalk are close, so close they can almost feel it.
DUNDALK: Gabriel Sava; Alan Keane (Paddy Barrett 90), Brian Gartland, Andy Boyle, Dane Massey; Ronan Finn, Stephen O’Donnell; John Mountney, Patrick McEleney (Chris Shields 58), Daryl Horgan; David McMillan (Ciaran O’Connor 83).
CORK CITY: Mark McNulty, Steven Beattie, Alan Bennett, Kenny Browne, Kevin O’Connor; Garry Buckley, Greg Bolger; Karl Sheppard (Chedozie Ogbene 74), Gavan Holohan (Mark O’Sullivan 54), Steven Dooley (Dave Mulcahy 85); Sean Maguire.
REFEREE: Tom Connolly.