IN the end it just wasn’t to be for Dundalk as Shamrock Rovers lived up to their pre-match billing of favourites to claim their first ever Setanta Cup in Tallaght on Saturday.
Goals from Gary O’Neill and Billy Dennehy secured Michael O’Neill his second trophy as Hoops boss and, as is more often than not the case in the game of football, Dundalk were cruelly denied a trophy that their exploits in the competition had deserved.
Cup finals can be determined by the smallest of margins and Dundalk fans were left to wonder what might have been had Stephen McDonnell and Jason Byrne not had to retire with injuries. What might have been if Daniel Kearns had opted to pass to Jason Byrne in first-half stoppage time? What might have been if referee Alan Kelly had awarded a penalty instead of a free-kick right on the edge of the penalty area in the 62nd minute.
Whilst lady luck seemed to turn her back on McDonnell and Byrne, she smiled kindly on Dundalk throughout the game. Rovers hit the woodwork on three occasions and nobody, including a proud Ian Foster, could deny them their victory.
“You have to congratulate Rovers”, he said. “Nobody particularly fancied us in this competition and we gave it our best shot. We were almost there, I thought we did okay against an excellent side tonight. We rode our luck at times. Daniel Kearns’ chance just before half-time was a big moment in the game as was when Alan Mannus pulled off a world class save from Mark Quigley’s free-kick.
“It was tight. I feel proud of my players, I genuinely do. They’ve performed admirably. We’ve pushed the champions all the way. What a wonderful experience and what a wonderful learning curve for the youngsters and teenagers in the team. I hope that has made them hungry for more cup finals and occasions like this.”
Dundalk fans were given a huge boost with the news that McDonnell had recovered from a knee injury sustained in the 1-0 win against Galway United eight days previously to take his place in the midfield. He was accompanied by Greg Bolger, who returned from an eight week lay off against Bohemians. Dean Bennett, another player who had recently had a spell on the sidelines, took his place on the bench.
McDonnell’s day came to an unfortunate end after just nine minutes when he limped off with suspected ligament damage to his knee. It robbed Dundalk of their most influential midfielder in recent weeks and removed the potential for what would have been a tasty encounter between the O’Hanlon Park man and Greenore native Conor McCormack in the centre of the park.
His replacement, Dean Bennett, made an instant impression, ploughing through Stephen Rice to win the ball with his first tackle, an incident that summed up Dundalk’s positive attitude.
With Quigley dropping deep and nullifying McCormack’s ability to get on the ball, Foster’s side asked plenty of questions. Bennett fired a low effort across Mannus which the ‘keeper did well to hold on to and then Byrne guided an effort just wide form 20-yards after being set up by Ross Gaynor.
Rovers struggled to come to terms with Dundalk’s intensity but they were given an opportunity in the 26th minute when Bennett fouled Dennehy only for the former Cork City star to shoot over with his free.
At the other end, Quigley tested Mannus with a wicked free-kick that the Rovers keeper did brilliantly to tip over the bar in the 31st minute. Ten minutes later, Dundalk were fortunate not to fall behind when Dennehy’s clever free-kick from 22-yards cracked the butt of the post and away from danger.
That seemed to breath some life into Rovers and Cherrie had to get down to his left to to turn a Ronan Finn drive around his post following a nice triangle of passes with Dennehy and O’Neill.
Dundalk had the last chance of an entertaining first-half in stoppage time – and what a chance it was. Kearns skipped away from a Rovers defender to advance with intent towards the opposition penalty area. Byrne, unmarked, and with a clear run on goal, screamed for the ball but the Belfast boy went for glory and ended up shooting wide from 25-yards. Byrne’s reaction spoke a thousand words; a glorious opportunity spurned.
Most of the early second-half play came in the midfield area where McCormack began to shine, showing a tactical intelligence way beyond his 20-years. Rovers were first to threaten, Finn forcing a save from Cherrie after a mix up between Madden and Colin Hawkins.
Dundalk were dealt a hammer blow in the 59th minute when Byrne limped off with a hamstring injury and it nose-dived from there as the Lilywhites lost their focal point and shape. Claims for a penalty were waved away three minutes later when Madden was tumbled right on the edge of the penalty area. The Dundalk skipper felt he was inside the danger zone but Kelly gave a free-kick right on the line.
To add salt to the wounds, Rovers opened the scoring in the 65th minute. Hector’s indecision on whether to clear the ball or not proved fatal, allowing Finn to take possession and run at the Dundalk back four. His cut back from the byline was perfect and O’Neill was on hand to grab just his second goal of the season.
Despite having 25 minutes to retrieve the situation, the goal seemed to completely kill off the resolve of Dundalk’s youngsters and they never really looked like forcing an equaliser although Bolger fizzed an effort over the top.
Rovers flexed their muscles and introduced Gary Twigg and the ace marksman should have put the champions two up when he raced clear of Hector only to see his placed attempt hit the post. Eight minutes previously, Dennehy hit the woodwork for the second time when his cross deceived Cherrie.
The killer blow arrived in stoppage time when Dennehy finally beat Cherrie with a shot that just manager to creep over the line despite the Scot’s best efforts.
So near and yet so far.