Friday night’s game, in front of almost 7,000 people at Turner’s Cross, was billed as the meeting of the immovable force and the unstoppable object. By the time referee, Rob Rogers, brought proceedings to a halt, Richie Towell’s brace ensured Dundalk left, not only with the three points, but with their reputation as this country’s finest team intact.
The trip to Leeside was seen as the biggest hurdle facing the champions to date. Ever since losing to Shamrock Rovers in July 2013, only one team had managed to leave the Cross with a win, that being Dundalk, last August, en route to the title.
That result, coming in the 22nd game of last season was viewed as hugely significant in Dundalk’s title charge. And while Friday night’s game was just the 10th of the current campaign, its relevance may prove to be just as important.
Towell’s double means that Dundalk sit five points clear of the Rebels at the summit. A worrying statistic for the rest of the league is that Stephen Kenny’s side are already six points better off than they were at the same stage last season.
With three former Celtic players on the pitch, it was fitting that Towell should settle the clash. The column inches in pre-season were dominated with chit chat about how powerful the Cork City midfield, led by Colin Healy and Liam Miller, would be but in Towell, Dundalk possess the best midfielder - and player - in the country; the headline act that the kids want to be, and the shining star that everyone wants to see.
His sumptuous half volley, two minutes into first half stoppage time, drew the champions level. If that was a stiff jab, his 47th minute penalty was the uppercut that floored the natives. It took the 23-year-old’s tally to nine for the season and we are still only in April.
He was supported by a stellar cast. Big games normally produce a big performance from Chris Shields and he delivered again, snuffing out danger and keeping Dundalk ticking over. Likewise, Daryl Horgan was a menacing threat, none more so than when he smacked the Cork City crossbar with a thunderous effort.
Up front, David McMillan ran himself ragged and occupied the Cork City back four throughout. His part in the build up to the penalty was nothing short of outstanding, showing fabulous control and movement to take Towell’s clearance on his chest and move away from Alan Bennett on halfway before driving at, and drawing the foul from Darren Dennehy, that led to the winning goal.
After so much hype, it was satisfying to watch the first half whisk along at a thrilling pace.
City, looking for their first win over Dundalk since 2012, opened on the front foot with Karl Sheppard escaping from Dane Massey to head wide early on before John O’Flynn volleyed well wide from distance in the seventh minute.
The champions wrestled control after that and there was a prelude to Dundalk’s first goal in the 12th minute when Cork City goalkeeper Mark McNulty spilled a Towell free, under pressure from McMillan. Massey rolled the ball into the net but referee Rogers, much to McNulty’s relief, adjudged the ‘keeper to have been fouled.
Towell saw an effort blocked by Alan Bennett soon after; McMillan again creating the chance with some excellent centre forward play, before the crossbar came to the home side’s rescue, denying ex-Cork player, Horgan the chance to silence the boo boys with a 30-yard blockbuster.
John Caulfield was forced to reshuffle when he lost captain John Dunleavy to a serious looking knee injury but his side hung in there and it was they who drew first blood after 32 minutes. Billy Dennehy’s free-kick from the right evaded Towell and took a slight nick off Andy Boyle, beating the unsighted Gary Rogers at his near post.
It left Dundalk in the unusual situation of being behind for the first time in a league game this season. Allied with Cork’s unblemished home record, the excitable reaction from the home support to Dennehy’s goal was understandable.
However, Dundalk, as has been their hallmark under Kenny, responded like champions and they pulled level two minutes into first half stoppage time. Darren Meenan’s corner from the left was spilled again by McNulty but there was no redemption for the goalkeeper this time as Towell nipped in front of O’Flynn to control and hammer the ball into the roof of the net.
And, just like they did in Tallaght seven days previously, Kenny’s side opened the second half in blistering fashion. Ten seconds had elapsed when Ronan Finn drew a good save from McNulty and only 47 minutes had been played when Towell showed ice cold composure to send the travelling hordes wild with his penalty.
The expected Cork City onslaught never really materialised after that with a Darren Dennehy header, hacked off the line by a combination of Towell and Sean Gannon, was as close as the home side came to restoring parity.
It was the visitors who almost added to their tally with McMillan crackin a volley off McNulty’s post after substitute, Stephen O’Donnell had caused panic in City defece.
The Shed End roared the home side on but the groans were audible when Sheppard headed a John Kavanagh cross off target in the 93rd minute, bringing Cork’s unbeaten run to an end and maintaining Dundalk’s status as the team that everyone will need to beat again this year.