The Jim Malone Cup will reside south of the county for another 12 months as Dundalk, yet again, lost a penalty shoot out against their neighbours, Drogheda United, on Friday night.
Patrick Hoban’s 92nd minute header, which cancelled out Gavin Brennan’s 20th minute opener, meant the regulation 90 minutes finished in a 1-1 draw.
That led to the shoot-out and, similar to the English national side when it comes to major competitions, there seems to be a penalty hoodoo hanging over Dundalk when it comes to the Malone Cup.
This was the eighth time the competition has been settled by penalties since its inception in 1997 and Drogheda United have won each and every one!
With both sides scheduled to meet again in the first league game of the season on March 7, Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny said he would use the game to utilize his squad and he stuck to his word, using each of his outfield substitutes.
Kenny named all six of his new recruits in the match day panel and the strength of Dundalk’s squad was illustrated by the names on their bench: Horgan, Griffin, Higgins, Hoban, Towell, Kelly and Sava.
A groin strain meant that Andy Boyle and long-term injury victim Keith Ward were the only regulars not to feature.
United Park was battered with wind and rain before kick-off and the conditions meant that attractive football was limited in the first-half with both sides guilty of plenty of wayward passing.
There were some moments to warm up a miserable evening and a well worked Dundalk move had the noisy away support applauding after eight minutes. David McMillan, who grew in stature as the first-half wore on, slid Dane Massey in on the left flank and made a beeline to the front post for the return. Drogheda centre-back Alan McNally ensured it didn’t reach him.
The former Sligo Rovers striker was involved again 10 minutes later. Picked out on the 18-yard line by Darren Meenan, McMillan showed good footwork to make space for a shot but his drive went straight at Michael Schlingermann.
It was the visitors who made all of the early running and it looked like they were building up a head of steam as the first-half approached the midway point.
Kurtis Byrne’s devilish cross from the left cried out for somebody in a white shirt to apply the finishing touch. The opportunity was cleared by Paul Andrews but the Drogheda goal still found itself under threat with Sean Gannon seeing a drive blocked and Chris Shields’ effort from the resulting loose ball saved by Schlingermann.
Robbie Horgan’s side looked devoid of creativity and, without the likes of Paul O’Conor, David Cassidy and Ryan Brennan to play that killer ball, they found it hard to penetrate in the final third.
All of that changed in the 21st minute though when Gavin Brennan found himself in acres of space behind the Dundalk back four. Brennan, who scored the winner in the controversial FAI Cup semi-final when the sides last met, looked at the linesman - almost in disbelief - for confirmation that he was onside and cooly slipped the ball last Peter Cherrie to draw first blood.
Despite plenty of remonstrating with the official on the hospital side of the ground, the protests from the Dundalk players were somewhat muted. One wonders if their reaction would be the same on March 7.
The rest of the first-half petered out with few moments worthy of a mention. McMillan almost profited from a poor back pass to Schlingermann from Shane Grimes. The Dundalk born left-back wasn’t the only player guilty of that mistake on the night.
With 15 minutes to go until half-time, McMillan gave another glimpse of what he can bring to the Lilywhites attack. Another neat passage of play saw Stephen O’Donnell rise high to flick on a Massey ball forward. McMillan collected and ghosted away from Andrews with a delicious turn. The Drogheda centre-back held on, quite literally, to the Dundalk striker as he made his way towards the 18-yard box and, in the end, the close contact proved to be effective as McMillan saw his shot go over the bar.
Both managers opted to keep the majority of their replacements on the bench at the start of the second-half. There was only one substitution with Ciaran McGuigan, who was part of Ian Foster’s Dundalk squad in 2011, coming on to replace Grimes. The Drogs left-back was spotted in the main stand during the second-half sporting a cast on his left arm. As it transpired, he broke two bones in his hand during the first period.
Kenny sent on the cavalry in the 63rd minute as Hoban, Horgan, Higgins and Towell all entered the fray with Dundalk struggling to make inroads into the Drogheda back four.
At the other end, the returning Gary O’Neill scarpered away on the right and cut the ball back for Fabio O’Brien to meet but his shot was beaten away by Peter Cherrie.
O’Donnell sent a fizzing effort straight at Schlingermann as Dundalk tried to raise the tempo but the Lilywhites were let off the hook in the 72nd minute.
Brennan’s left foot sizzler had the Dundalk crossbar shaking and, with their back four all over the place, O’Brien reacted to steer the ball into the bottom corner. That looked to have sealed the win for the Drogs but the offside flag, which Dundalk were looking for in the first-half, ruled the goal out.
With conditions deteriorating as the game approached the 90th minute, it looked as though the game was up for Dundalk. Daryl Horgan, who showed plenty of promise when introduced, broke down the inside left but his drive bounced off the Drogheda crossbar and went over.
That looked to be it for Kenny’s side but they mounted one more attack and when Horgan swung in a cross from the left, Hoban rose majestically to power a fantastic header past the unlucky Schlingermann to force a 92nd minute equaliser.
That sent the competition to penalties and, true to form, it was the home side who retained the trophy as O’Donnell and Horgan missed their spot-kicks to give Drogheda United a 5-4 win.
As dress rehearsals go, this was a pretty tame affair. Roll on the real stuff in just under four weeks time.
Drogheda United: Michael Schlingermann; Mick Daly, Paul Andrews, Alan McNally, Shane Grimes (Ciaran McGuigan HT); Cathal Brady (Carl Walshe 73), Eric Foley (Austin McCann 84), Daire Doyle (Paul Crowley 57), Gavin Brennan; Gary O’Neill, Declan O’Brien (Philip Hughes 83). Unused subs: Dylan Connolly.
Dundalk FC: Peter Cherrie; Sean Gannon (Simon Kelly 73), Mark Rossiter, Brian Gartland, Dane Massey; Chris Shields (Ruaidhri Higgins 63), Stephen O’Donnell, John Mountney (Richie Towell 63); Darren Meenan (Daryl Horgan 63), David McMillan (Marc Griffin 73), Kurtis Byrne (Patrick Hoban 63). Unused sub: Gabriel Sava (GK).
Referee: Paul McLaughlin.