Dundalk’s Airtricity League title hopes were left teetering on the brink following a 2-1 defeat to Limerick at Oriel Park on Friday night.
Rory Gaffney took his season’s tally to eight with a brace that will have been celebrated just as loudly in Inchicore as it will have been in Thomond Park.
Richie Towell gave Dundalk a chink of hope with a 68th minute penalty but the Blues held on to record their second league victory of the season over the Lilywhites, and what a costly one it could be for Stephen Kenny’s team.
The result sends Dundalk sliding into third place, a point behind Sligo Rovers and a further six behind league leaders St Patrick’s Athletic who look to be holding all the aces with just four fixtures to play.
Despite fears that he may miss the rest of the campaign with a groin injury, Dundalk were able to name new FIFA 14 cover star Patrick Hoban in their starting XI.
Stuart Taylor wasn’t afforded the same luxury though as fellow FIFA poster boy Shane Tracy missed out for the Blues although Joe Gamble returned in place of David O’Leary, the only change to the side that beat Shamrock Rovers three nights previously.
With St Patrick’s Athletic winning at the Carlisle Grounds on Thursday night, Dundalk knew that only a win would do to keep their title hopes alive.
And the home side started on the front foot, forcing two corners in the opening minutes, the second of which Hoban swept over the crossbar.
The Dundalk fans were given more encouragement in the 10th minute when John Dillon’s inch perfect pass almost picked out Richie Towell’s run into enemy territory.
The roof caved in on the Lilywhites eight minutes later as the Blues took the lead with their first attack of the game.
After turning the ball over in midfield, Stephen Bradley’s lofted pass found Rory Gaffney and he stunned Oriel Park with a fine volley that beat Peter Cherrie - and no doubt sent fans of St Pat’s into raptures.
Kenny’s title chasers were frustrated in their bid for a quick response.
Hoban saw a near post effort fly over after Chris Shields and Darren Meenan, two components of the Dundalk team who were so badly missed in the 2-0 defeat against Pat’s last week - had combined to force a corner.
Frustration spread aggressively through the home support and Dillon drew unwanted attention for attempting a Hollywood pass which resulted in a Limerick break which could have led to a second goal in the 28th minute.
The Gaffney haymaker landed seven minutes later, stunning Oriel Park into silence..
Patrick Nzuzi’s ball over the top set Gaffney clear. The striker looked to be clearly offside but the assistant’s flag stayed down and Gaffney made no mistake to leave Dundalk’s title bid very much on the ropes.
The sense that it just wasn’t going to be Dundalk’s night was heightened even more when Kurtis Byrne and Patrick Hoban headed over with chances that the pair have been gobbling up in recent weeks.
And it was Limerick who almost added a final nail in the coffin; Craig Curran’s header pushed against the woodwork by Cherrie nine minutes before half-time.
There was another let-off for the home side in first-half injury time when Chris Shields clattered Carel Tiofack. A bout of handbags ensued after it with referee Derek Tomney speaking to both his assistant before issuing just a yellow card to the fortunate Shields.
A Mark Rossiter drive hinted that there might be a Dundalk onslaught on the way at the start of the second-half but Limerick once again regained their composure and the woodwork denied Curran again in the 53rd minute.
With their hopes fading into the Oriel Park sky, Dundalk were thrown a lifeline in the 66th minute when they were awarded a penalty by referee Tomney.
Samuel Oji’s hand came up to wave the ball away from Patrick Hoban and Richie Towell sent Barry Ryan the wrong way from the penalty spot to haul Dundalk back in it and raise the volume at the Louth venue.
Hoban missed another gilt edged header as the game approached the final 20 minutes and Dane Massey then floated a free-kick over the top as Kenny’s head tried to build a head of steam
They were thwarted in their efforts though as Stuart Taylor’s side stopped the game at every opportunity to fracture the play and Limerick held on comfortably to record their second win in a week and edge the league title just that little bit closer to Richmond Park.
Dundalk FC: Peter Cherrie; Mark Rossiter ©, Andy Boyle, Brian Gartland, Dane Massey; John Dillon (John Mountney 54), Chris Shields (Jordan Keegan 83), Richie Towell, Darren Meenan, Patrick Hoban, Kurtis Byrne (Tiarnan Mulvenna 59). Unused subs: John Sullivan, Simon Kelly, Vinny Faherty, Conor Winn (GK).
Limerick: Barry Ryan; Patrick Nzuzi, Stephen Folan, Samuel Oji, Robbie Williams; Stephen Bradley, Joe Gamble ©, Jason Hughes, Carel Tiofack; Rory Gaffney, Craig Curran. Unused subs: Tony Whitehead, Colm Murphy, Darragh Rainsford, Barry Sheedy, Axel Bossekata, Shane Cusack (GK).
REFEREE: Derek Tomney (Dublin).