Dundalk continue to breath heavily down the neck of league leaders St Patrick’s Athletic following this comprehensive and fully deserved 3-1 win over Shamrock Rovers at Oriel Park on Friday night.
A brace from Patrick Hoban and an emphatic finish from Kurtis Byrne moved Stephen Kenny’s men just a single point behind Pat’s and all but slammed the door on Rovers’ title bid.
The duo, who had never kicked a ball in the League of Ireland top flight before this season, have now scored 16 league goals between them to propel Kenny’s side firmly into the title race.
Having drawn 12 of their 22 games so far this season, Rovers knew that a win was vital to their hopes of clawing back some ground on the four teams above them. However Trevor Croly’s side were second best throughout and their performance got exactly what it deserved.
Mark Rossiter failed to recover from a hamstring injury that saw him limp off in the previous outing against Bray Wanderers so Kenny was forced to deploy Chris Shields at left-back for the second week in succession. John Dillon replaced Jordan Keegan in midfield the only other change.
Rovers arrived at Oriel Park unbeaten in four previous meetings between the sides in all competitions this season. In fact, the last time Dundalk beat the Hoops was back in September 2010 - some 13 games ago - when they won 5-1 at the Carrick Road venue.
The home side were looking to stretch their lead over Rovers to 10 points and they got off to the perfect start after just 96 seconds.
Conor Powell’s sloppy back pass left Richard Brush stranded and Hoban showed great composure to take the ball around the goalkeeper and set himself before hooking the ball into an empty net.
Dundalk continued to zip the ball around at a high tempo with Hoban, Byrne, Richie Towell and Stephen O’Donnell all prominent in their first-half display.
O’Donnell smacked a free-kick straight at Brush in the 8th minute before Dundalk’s second goal arrived eight minutes later.
Darren Meenan, who saw a free-kick hit the first man just seconds earlier, delivered a wonderful corner from the right and Hoban rose, unchallenged, to plant a fine header past Brush to send the home supporters into overdrive.
The Oriel Park faithful were in raptures at this stage and they were almost celebrating again one minute later. Towell raced through on the inside right and drilled a fierce drive past the far post with Hoban inches away from adding a finishing touch.
Rovers missed the guile of Finn going forward and their display in the opening period was summed up when James Chambers floated a free-kick from a dangerous area straight into Cherrie’s arms.
Dundalk looked indecisive at the back though and the Hoops were given some encouragement, particularly with searching balls in behind Lilywhites right-back John Sullivan that Billy Dennehy looked to exploit.
Chambers forced Cherrie into a save in the 38th minute with a neat turn and shot from distance; Rovers’ first meaningful effort at goal.
Trevor Croly’s men were thrown a barely deserved lifeline in the 44th minute when Sean O’Connor jinked his way towards the Dundalk penalty area before laying the ball off for Karl Sheppard to curl a delightful effort into Cherrie’s left hand corner.
There was still time for a Dundalk response before the break though and Byrne forced a fine stop from Brush with a vicious effort with the outside of his right boot.
Rovers attempted to up their game at the start of the second-half and Jason McGuinness forced Peter Cherrie into a spectacular, if straightforward, stop in the 50th minute.
There was a feeling that the next goal would be crucial in dictating the outcome of the game and it arrived Dundalk’s way in the 54th minute.
Andy Boyle rose to meet a Meenan free-kick at the back post and Brush could only palm the ball straight into the path of Kurtis Byrne who slammed the ball home from close range.
Rovers huffed and puffed in a bid to retrieve the situation but with the excellent Shields, Boyle and Brian Gartland throwing their bodies on the line, the closest they came was in the 83rd minute when Cherrie somehow managed to block Sheppard’s deflected effort.
And the visitors’ miserable night was summed up in the 86th minute when Stephen Rice was shown a straight red card for lashing out at Shields, just six minutes after being introduced as a sub.
One down, ten to go. Dundalk are showing no signs of letting up.