The mid season break has arrived with Dundalk still very much the team to beat as Richie Towell’s penalty secured the champions all three points in the west on Friday night.
Despite beginning the game rooted in the bottom three, Sligo Rovers defied their lowly status by going at Dundalk in the opening 20 minutes and they got their reward when Morten Nielsen flashed a drive past the bewildered Gary Rogers.
The league leaders, however, wrestled control of the game and Danny Ledwith’s own goal restored parity before the break with Towell’s 57th minute penalty ensuring the Dundalk players went on their summer holidays with a smile.
Stephen Kenny’s side have been ultra consistent in the opening 16 league games. A return of 41 points leaves them sitting three points ahead of Cork City and seven ahead of third placed Shamrock Rovers - with a game in hand over both clubs.
Progress has also been made in the domestic cups and, as well as fighting on four fronts at home, when Dundalk take to the field for their next game, at home to bottom of the table Limerick on Friday week, the club will know their opponents for the second round of the Champions League Qualifiers in July. What an exciting time this is to be associated with the club.
The build up to Friday’s game was dominated by the speculation regarding Sligo manager Owen Heary. The Bit O’Red boss was said to have been relieved of his duties following the 5-1 defeat to Shamrock Rovers and those stories appeared to have been given credence when he failed to appear in the dugout with former player and current coach Joseph Ndo taking charge of the side.
Dundalk arrived at The Showgrounds looking to get their title bid back on track following the 2-1 defeat to Bohemians. Brian Gartland made his first start since May 9 by coming in for the suspended Paddy Barrett. It was the only change to the side that tasted defeat for the first time in 25 games seven days earlier.
Under Ndo, the home side deployed an attacking line up and they seemed to catch Dundalk on the hop early on. Only three minutes had elapsed when alarm bells were ringing in the Lilywhites penalty area after Estonian Sander Puri managed to hustle Gartland and the flu ridden Sean Gannon in the penalty area before lifting the ball over Rogers. It looked like a certain goal but Andy Boyle came from nowhere to hack the ball off the line.
Buoyed by that, Sligo continued on the front foot and they forged ahead six minutes later. Danish winger Nielsen was allowed to cut in from the right and hammer an effort at goal. The ball certainly moved at speed but Rogers - a league winner with Sligo in 2012 - badly misjudged the flight and the ball flew past him.
It took a further 10 minutes for the champions to finally warm to the task with Kenny visibly frustrated by his side’s lack of cohesion. A Daryl Horgan free-kick from the edge of the D drifted wide in the 17th minute, summing up Dundalk’s opening to the game.
From then on, however, the visitors exerted their control and although they never really opened the home side up, they dominated the possession and territorial stakes.
Horgan served notice of what was to come when he skipped away from Alan Keane on the left to deliver a cross into the dangerzone but Richie Towell could only send the loose ball over the top. Dundalk’s top scorer then saw another opportunity go wayward after Chris Shields won the ball back in the middle of the park; the midfielder’s commanding performance a vital part in Dundalk coming away with all three points.
The killer pass may have been absent but the one thing this Dundalk side constantly display is a tremendous work ethic and that was prominent again as they constantly pressed Richard Brush’s short goal kicks. The Rovers goalkeeper almost paid the price in the 29th minute, his poor pass going straight to Horgan. The former Sligo winger returned it goalwards but Brush recovered brilliantly to save.
The large travelling support - who sang their hearts out throughout - sensed an equaliser and it duly arrived in the 34th minute. Horgan was the architect, his fantastic ball from the left causing Ledwith all sorts of problems, resulting in the Sligo defender turning the ball into his own net with Ronan Finn lurking just behind.
Kenny introduced Darren Meenan for the ineffective John Mountney at the break and Dundalk’s power shone through in the second period as they took a complete stranglehold of the game.
Brush was guilty of another poor clearance in the 51st minute, giving the ball to Horgan again but the resulting shot was gathered by the net minder. The Sligo goalkeeper did a lot better shortly after, coming to gather a Horgan cross that looked destined for Finn. Gavin Peers then made a timely tackle to deny Finn just as he was about to pull the trigger.
Dundalk continued to probe but they fund it difficult in and around the 18-yard box with David McMillan, looking for his first goal in almost two months - working extremely hard without ever really getting a look in chance wise.
The opportunity to go ahead arrived in the 56th minute and it was an incident that left referee Paul McLaughlin as public enemy number one amongst the home support. The route, yet again, was Dundalk’s left channel. Dane Massey’s break took him towards the byline and when his cross hit Keane’s flailing arm, McLaughlin had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
There was very little the Bit O’Red full back could have done to stop contact but the appeals fell on deaf ears and Towell sent Brush the wrong way to rack up his 11th league goal in just 16 games, a fantastic return for a midfield player.
From then on, Dundalk never looked like being pulled back. If anything, they should have added a third with Meenan guilty of picking the wrong option on a couple of occasions, notably in the 58th minute following a rapid break from back to front.
The introduction of Stephen O’Donnell added energy at a crucial stage of the game and he almost latched on to Horgan’s slide rule pass late on, the ball just intercepted before it fell into his path. The third substitute of the night, Kurtis Byrne, was also involved late on but he opted to try and take a Meenan cross down instead of hitting it first time and another chance passed.
Sligo’s opening 20 minute display seemed a distant memory as the game wore on and Rogers was a bystander for most of the second half with the Meathman’s only real action coming in the dying minutes when he confidently left his line to collect a couple of late crosses into the box.
McLaughlin’s final whistle drew huge cheers from the Dundalk support and their efforts were appreciated by the players and management at the end of the game.
The performance may not have been spectacular but the result could be significant. And, coupled with Bohemians ending Shamrock Rovers’ unbeaten run at Dalymount Park, it was a good night all round.