Stephen O’Donnell’s dramatic 88th minute winner moved Dundalk level on points with St Patrick’s Athletic at the top of the Airtricity League table as the Lilywhites overcame Drogheda United in a tense Louth derby at Oriel Park on Sunday evening.
O’Donnell pounced on a mistake by Drogs centre-back Alan McNally to casually roll the ball past Michael Schlingermann to give Stephen Kenny’s side a victory that could well define their season.
All roads now lead to Inchicore on Friday September 20 when the top two will meet at Richmond Park in a game that will play a significant part in determining the outcome of the 2013 Airtricity League title.
Kenny made two changes to the side that beat UCD in their previous outing.
Both were enforced; the suspended Kurtis Byrne replaced by Tiarnan Mulvenna while John Mountney made his first start in 10 games, coming in for the injured Brian Gartland.
A minute’s applause was held before kick-off in memory of the loyal and well known Dundalk supporter, Marty Shields, who passed away in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Marty - whose daughter Glenda bravely led the teams out - was given a raucous send off by the crowd but there was little else for the Oriel faithful to shout about as they endured a frustrating opening 45 minutes.
It was Mick Cooke’s side who controlled the first-half as the occasion, and what was at stake, seemed to leave the home side - and their supporters - riddled with anxiety.
Kenny’s team, so free flowing in recent weeks, were barely able to put a move of note together and every mistake drew groans of frustration from the crowd.
Their clearest opening came after just 97 seconds. Skipper O’Donnell flashed a wicked ball from the left across the face of goal but Pat Hoban just couldn’t extend himself enough to prod the ball home.
The Drogs, with big Alan Byrne marshalling the middle of the park, grew in stature and a wicked Gavin Brennan cross early on drew a full length save from Peter Cherrie before David Cassidy fired over from distance.
Cassidy, one of five former Dundalk players in the Drogs XI, was involved again on the half-hour, positioning himself in a dangerous area to receive Declan O’Brien’s cutback only for O’Donnell to block his effort.
The visitors continued to ask all the questions and after three corners in as many minutes, they thought they had pulled ahead 10 minutes before the break.
Cassidy’s corner from the left cleared Cherrie and was bundled home at the far post by Mick Daly but - fortunately for Dundalk - referee Alan Kelly saw an infringement and ruled the goal out.
Kenny reacted to his side’s display by replacing the ineffective Mulvenna with John Dillon after 36 minutes; the local striker showing his disappointment by heading straight down the tunnel.
The home support were given some encouragement approaching half-time when Hoban and O’Donnell combined well just outside the penalty area but the Dundalk midfielder saw his shot fly harmlessly off target.
Kenny tinkered further with his formation at the start of the second-half, moving Mountney - who, unsurprisingly, looked well off the pace at times - into an advanced position just behind Hoban but the move had little effect as Alan McNally and Derek Prendergast dealt brilliantly with Dundalk’s top scorer.
Indeed it was the Boynesiders who again looked potent going forward and Cherrie had to be sharp to tip a goalbound O’Brien header over from Mick Daly’s hooked cross.
Dundalk retaliated and Hoban broke free on the right of the penalty area. His cut back looked dead but O’Donnell arrived late only to see his drive fly just wide. The skipper then drove an effort into the ground after a clever bit of play by Dane Massey on the edge of the box.
Many of the 3324 in attendance thought that would signal the start of an onslaught but it was the Drogs who again looked the more inventive and Chris Shields had to fling himself in front of a Cassidy shot to keep the game scoreless.
Dundalk were living on their nerves again in the 78th minute. Cassidy - a thorn in his old club’s side throughout - saw his free-kick from the left fall to Byrne at the back post but, with Cherrie in no man’s land, he hesitated before scooping the ball over the top.
It looked like the Drogs would leave their neighbours rueing a missed opportunity but O’Donnell popped up to dispossess the otherwise excellent McNally to send the home supporters into raptures.
Dundalk finished the game with 10 men after Chris Shields was sent-off for a second bookable offence in stoppage time.
The full time whistle signalled the start of some wild celebrations and the players marked the occasion with a beautiful gesture by leaving the field carrying a banner emblazoned with the slogan ‘RIP Marty Shields’.
A top class gesture, by a top class team in honour of a top class man. Marty would have been proud.