Humbled in Europe three nights earlier, Dundalk ended the week on top of the pile domestically thanks to a comfortable 2-0 win over Athlone Town at Oriel Park on Sunday evening.
Cork City’s victory over UCD on Friday night meant that only a win would be enough for Stephen Kenny’s men to return to the top of the table by virtue of goal difference. First-half goals from Patrick Hoban and Brian Gartland ensured that.
If Kenny could have handpicked an opposing team to visit the Oriel after Thursday night’s 2-0 defeat to Hajduk Split it would have been Athlone Town.
The midlanders have been on the up ever since Keith Long took over the reins from Mick Cooke but, with just a solitary point on the road to their name, and a crippling injury list, they were easy prey for Kenny’s title chasers.
The Dundalk boss Kenny resisted the urge to tinker with his team with Kurtis Byrne - replacing John Mountney - the only change from the side that was beaten in the Europa League qualifier.
Athlone Town boss Keith Long didn’t have such luxuries, making six changes to the side that beat Limerick in their previous outing. All were enforced with Derek Prendergast suspended, Paul Skinner, Sean Byrne, Graham Rusk and Alan Byrne all injured and top scorer Philly Gorman at a family wedding.
Deputising for Paul Skinner between the posts was Ryan Coulter who spent a number of seasons with Dundalk’s underage teams, making one first team appearance with the Lilywhites back in 2009.
When referee Derek Tomney blew his half-time whistle, those in the Dundalk dressing room already had one eye on the upcoming return leg with Hajduk in Croatia.
Two nil to the good, it could have been more. A string of fine saves from Coulter and a questionable offside decision meant that Athlone went into the dressing room with a glimmer of hope of turning it around.
The key man in Dundalk’s first half display was Byrne. Dropped to make way for Mountney in the European game, the 23-year-old responded with a fine performance, playing an integral part in Hoban’s opener and working Coulter on a number of occasions.
The first of those came in the 14th minute when his left footed missile from 20-yards was tipped brilliantly around the post. The save drew a huge round of applause from the crowd but referee Tomney took the shine off the stop, awarding a goal kick, much to the fury of those on the Dundalk bench.
Byrne was involved again six minutes later, inviting Dane Massey to dart into the Athlone Town box. His cut back was inch perfect but Richie Towell could only hack at the ball and it went over the top.
Dundalk’s pressure eventually told two minutes later. A well worked move involving Darren Meenan and Hoban set Byrne up for another duel with Coulter. Again, the goalkeeper made a top class save but Hoban was on hand to tap home the rebound.
Gartland rose to guide home a Towell free-kick nine minutes later to make it 2-0 with his seventh goal of the campaign.
The big centre-back then thought he had notched his second of the night when he powered home another header four minutes before the break. Referee Tomney, though, ruled the goal out after a questionable flag from the assistant.
The urgency on display by the home side in the first-half was nowhere to be seen after the break and fears that Athlone might suffer the same fate as they did on their previous visit to Oriel Park - a 7-0 loss back in 2008 - soon abated.
James O’Brien should have pulled one back for the visitors in the 62nd minute, his lob beating Peter Cherrie but drifting just over the top.
Athlone continued to have a go and the Cherrie was relieved to see a Mulroy shot fly wide before substitute Ian Sweeney also saw a deflected effort whistle past the upright with 10 minutes to go.
The game petered out after that and, for the second successive Sunday, Dundalk emphatically answered the questions posed by Cork City.