JASON Byrne’s 178th goal of his League of Ireland career ensured Dundalk a share of the spoils against Shamrock Rovers in a pulsating encounter at Oriel Park yesterday afternoon.
The veteran hit-man’s 36th minute penalty cancelled out Karl Sheppard’s third goal in as many games to leave the sides deadlocked in what was a mouth watering dress rehearsal for Saturday week’s Setanta Cup final.
Dundalk were handed a massive boost with the news that Daniel Kearns was declared fit to play after missing Friday night’s 0-0 draw with Bray Wanderers with pleurisy. Jason Byrne and Colin Hawkins, who were rated doubtful coming into the game, were also named in the starting XI.
Table topping Rovers remained unchanged from the side that beat Galway United 1-0 in the televised clash on Friday night meaning there was no place for former Bellurgan United schoolboy Conor McCormack in their line-up.
Played in a swirling wind, the game started at a frantic pace with both sides keen to gain the upper hand right from the off. Rovers looked dangerous going forward and some anxious moments from Hawkins and Michael Hector in the Lilywhites back four suggested they would find some joy.
At the other end, Byrne did well to guide a wayward Ross Gaynor shot towards goal in the 10th minute although his header never really looked like troubling Alan Mannus.
Dundalk boss Ian Foster opted to watch the first half an hour from the stands and he will have been unhappy at the manner in which the Hoops pulled in front after 16 minutes.
Enda Stevens was given time to pick a pass from inside his own half, setting Karl Sheppard free on the inside left channel. The through ball cut the Dundalk back four wide open and, with no defender anywhere in sight, the in-form striker coolly finished past Peter Cherrie for his 6th goal of the season.
Dundalk struggled to make any sort of headway going forward but they were given reason for optimism in the 35th minute when Alan Mannus had to fling himself to the left to touch Mark Quigley’s hooked 20-yard effort around the post.
Two minutes later and the home crowd were celebrating an equaliser.
Stephen Rice was the guilty party for Rovers, taking Quigley out just inside the penalty area. Referee Derek Tomney pointed to the spot and Jason Byrne sent Mannus the wrong way for the second-time time this season. The goal moved Byrne level alongside Turlough O’Connor in third place on the list of all time League of Ireland scorers.
Dundalk started the second-half on the front foot with Hector going close with two chances in quick succession. The first arrived via a Gaynor corner in the 55th minute, Mannus making a brave stop to deflect the defender’s point blank header over the bar.
The on-loan Reading player then almost rounded off a fine move seconds later. Keith Ward sent Byrne free on the right but Hector just couldn’t get a touch on the striker’s vicious ball across the face of goal.
Rovers came back into things as play became stretched. Gary O’Neill squandered a good opportunity when he blazed over with a half volley just shy of the hour mark before Ronan Finn did likewise minutes later.
The champions had a penalty appeal waved away in the 72nd minute when Sheppard saw an overhead kick deflected over the bar and they were up in arms again with two minutes to go when Sheppard went down under a clumsy Ross Gaynor tackle.
Referee Tomney waved play on, sparking outrage on the Rovers bench and leading to Michael O’Neill being sent to the stands; almost a year to the day since his previous dismissal from the Oriel Park dugout.
Saturday May 14 can’t come quick enough.
DUNDALK: 1 Peter Cherrie; 2 Simon Madden (captain), 5 Colin Hawkins, 6 Michael Hector, 13 Nathan Murphy; 7 Daniel Kearns, 16 Stephen McDonnell, 17 Keith Ward, 11 Ross Gaynor; 9 Mark Quigley, 10 Jason Byrne.
Subs not used: 18 Marc Griffin, 19 Johnny Breen, 20 Chris Kerr, 21 Philip Duffy, 22 Stephen Hutchison, 12 Paul Murphy (GK).
Booked: Keith Ward, 41 mins; Stephen McDonnell, 59 mins; Ross Gaynor, 87 mins.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: 1 Alan Mannus; 2 Pat Sullivan, 5 Dan Murray (captain), 17 Ken Oman, 3 Enda Stevens; 7 Gary McCabe (15 Paddy Kavanagh, 66 mins), 6 Stephen Rice, 21 Ronan Finn, 20 Billy Dennehy (14 Dean Kelly, 81 mins); 19 Gary O’Neill (11 Ciaran Kilduff, 73 mins), 10 Karl Sheppard.
Subs not used: 13 Pat Flynn, 18 Sean Gannon, 22 Conor McCormack, 16 Ryan Thompson (GK).
Booked: Gary O’Neill, 63 mins; Pat Sullivan, 86 mins; Enda Stevens, 90 mins.
REFEREE: Derek Tomney (Dublin).