Stephen McDonnell’s first goal of the season rescued Dundalk as the ten man Lilywhites came from behind to secure a 2-2 draw and deny Waterford United victory in the first leg of the promotion/relegation play-off at Oriel Park.
The home side went in front through a Lorcan Shannon effort midway through the first-half but they were reduced to ten men when Stephen Maher saw red in the 33rd minute.
The Blues deservedly pulled level through a Paul Phelan header (50) before substitute Ben Ryan made an instant impact to give Waterford the lead on the hour mark.
Dundalk, though, hit back in the 75th minute and McDonnell’s 25-yard drive means the tie is on a knife edge going into Friday night’s second leg at the RSC.
Both teams came into the game missing key players. Dundalk lined up without the services of key defender Derek Foran who failed a late fitness test on a groin injury while a similar niggle also meant there was no place in the squad for top scorer Gary Shanahan.
United boss Paul O’Brien had to plan without defensive regulars Seamus Long and John Frost who were absent through suspension. An injury to Stephen Mulcahy, sustained in the First Division play-off second leg win over Longford Town, ruled him out with Paul Carey and Dylan Mernagh stepping into the full-back positions.
Waterford United arrived at Oriel Park with history very much against them. In six previous promotion/relegation play-offs the Blues had come out second best on each occasion with two of those defeats coming at the hands of Dundalk.
However, buoyed by a run of 12 straight wins on the road, the First Division side certainly wouldn’t have feared their trip to the Louth venue and they looked bright in the opening 10 minutes.
Dundalk, playing in front of an anxious crowd, looked jittery early on and a John Mountney mis-kick on the edge of his penalty area led to a half chance for the Blues in the 5th minute.
Paul Phelan made space for a cross from the left but centre-back David Breen hesitated for a split second just when it looked like he had beaten Lilywhites goalkeeper Peter Cherrie to the ball.
The home side were then dealt a further blow to their back four when Liam Burns, ‘celebrating’ his 34th birthday, limped off to be replaced by Paul Whelan after just 13 minutes.
Dundalk’s first opportunity came in the 20th minute. Lorcan Shannon’s corner from the left was met by captain Chris Shields but his header flew just off target.
That seemed to settle Darius Kierans’ men and they drew first blood seven minutes later.
Maher’s ball into space set Chris Reilly away on the left. His first touch took him away from goal but his second was a beauty, cutting the ball back perfectly for the inrushing Shannon to fire home with his left foot.
Waterford almost replied straight from the kick-off. Sean Maguire cut through the Dundalk back four to set up Phelan to fire an effort goalward which Cherrie did brilliantly to tip over, a deflection on the ball from Whelan making the save even better.
Blues boss Paul O’Brien will have been delighted with the response of his charges to going a goal behind and they continued to pepper the Dundalk goal with Cherrie having to be at his best again to deny Maguire and Peter White in quick succession.
Dundalk were on the back foot at this stage and their hopes of steadying the ship were left in disarray after 33 minutes when Maher received a straight red card from referee Paul McLaughlin after lashing out needlessly at Peter Higgins on the right touchline.
That gave the visitors more incentive to push forward and Maguire, whose movement caused problems throughout for Whelan and Shields, tested Cherrie again in the 38th minute but Dundalk held on to take a one goal advantage in at the break.
The lead lasted for just five minutes of the second-half as Waterford deservedly drew level. Slack marking on the Dundalk right allowed Paul Carey to get his cross away and Phelan was in the right spot at the back post to head the ball home.
The tie was turned on its head 10 minutes later. Left back Dylan Mernagh cut back on his right foot to deliver a telling cross over the head of Shields and Ben Ryan, just seconds after coming on as a substitute, guided a fantastic header across Cherrie to put United in the driving seat.
The ten men refused to buckle though and half-time substitute McDonnell restored parity in the 75th minute with a 25-yard drive that flew past Packie Holden.
Waterford went close to taking the lead again in the 80th minute but Cherrie again stood tall to brilliantly deny Gary Dempsey before Maguire almost won it at the death when he saw an effort go inches wide with the Dundalk net-minder rooted to the spot.
DUNDALK: Peter Cherrie; Mark O’Brien, Chris Shields, Liam Burns (Paul Whelan 13), Eoghan Osborne; Lorcan Shannon, Stephen Maher, John Mountney, Chris Reilly (Stephen McDonnell HT); Marc Griffin, Michael Rafter (Nathan Murphy 85). Unused subs: William Woods, Conor McDonald, Barry Conlon, Robbie Gaul.
WATERFORD UNITED: Packie Holden; Paul Carey, David Breen, Craig Burns, Dylan Mernagh; Peter Higgins (Ben Ryan 60), Gary Dempsey, Peter White, Paul Phelan; Peter Keegan (Darragh Walsh HT), Sean Maguire. Unused subs: Aidan McGrath, Jack Doherty, Jamie Cross, Conor Coad, Robbie Hughes.
REFEREE: Paul McLaughlin (Monaghan).