Dundalk moved seven points clear at the top of the SSE Airtricity League table as David McMillan’s 19th goal of the season ensured the Lilywhites took all three points home from their clash with Sligo Rovers at The Showgrounds on Tuesday night.
McMillan pounced in the 13th minute, tapping home after some great interplay by Ronan Finn and John Mountney on the edge of the Rovers penalty area. At that stage, the hosts were down to 10 men following the dismissal of Craig Roddan for a rash tackle on Daryl Horgan.
Stephen Kenny went with the same side that beat Bohemians four days earlier but Darren Meenan and Robbie Benson were fit enough to take their place on the bench.
The Bit o’Red were able to name both Raffaele Cretaro and Roddan in their starting XI after the FAI confirmed that both players had served a suspension in the aborted match against Finn Harps three nights earlier.
Roddan, however, lasted just nine minutes, the Rovers captain leaving Daryl Horgan in a heap just inside his own half. The midfielder protested his innocence but referee Paul McLaughlin had no hesitation in pulling out the red card.
Dundalk rammed home the numerical advantage four minutes later by bagging the only goal of the night, the result of a beautiful team move. Started by McEleney, Finn collected the ball before slipping a great pass in behind for Mountney and he showed great awareness to pull the ball back for McMillan to tap his 14th league goal - and his 19th overall - into an empty goal.
Dave Robertson’s side struggled to lay a glove on The Lilywhites in the opening half with their best opportunity coming in the 17th minute when striker Achille Campion headed a Liam Martin cross narrowly wide.
Kenny started Gary Rogers, despite the fact the goalkeeper only returned to Ireland in the early hours of the morning following the senior international team’s World Cup Qualifier in Serbia.
The Meathman won a league title with Sligo back in 2012 and he almost endeared himself to the home support again in the 24th minute when he failed on two occasions to clear a long ball outside his penalty area. Luckily for him, Stephen O’Donnell was on hand to block Kieran Sadlier’s attempted shot at the empty goal.
Dundalk took complete control after that and created a host of chances with Horgan, who ran Adebayo-Rowling ragged in the opening 45 minutes, cutting in from the left to fire just over with a vicious effort. The little winger then missed the target from close range after Mountney’s cross deflected kindly into his path.
Horgan turned provider just before the break, picking out McMillan at the far post but the striker couldn’t add to his tally. The sides went into the dressing rooms with McLaughlin the subject of the jeers from the main stand.
Sligo offered a bit more in the second half with Cretaro giving the crowd a lift with a positive run in the 47th minute but his shot at the end of it proved to be wayward.
McLaughlin became public enemy number one again in the 56th minute when he booked Gavin Peers for what looked to have been a fine tackle on Horgan on the edge of the penalty area. Dundalk’s number seven picked himself up to smack the free-kick at the wall before driving the loose ball wide of Schlingermann’s post.
Kenny replaced McEleney with Robbie Benson just past the hour mark and the Athlone man almost made a quick impression, meeting a Mountney free kick five minutes later only to direct it off target.
Dundalk looked comfortable, almost too comfortable, at times but with just a one goal lead, they knew that an error could be fatal.
An example in case was in the 75th minute when Brian Gartland had his pocket picked by Daniel Kearns just past halfway. The former Dundalk player fed Campion but O’Donnell tracked his run brilliantly, winning possession before the Rovers forward could do anything meaningful.
Sligo were up in arms again with three minutes to go when Boyle made a fantastic sliding tackle on Peers inside his own 18-yard area. The home support wanted a penalty but McLaughlin was right to dismiss the appeals.
A tense four minutes of additional time followed with Cretaro firing a low shot at Rogers but Dundalk saw it out to take a huge step towards their third league title on the trot.
SLIGO ROVERS: Micheal Schlingermann; Tobi Adebayo-Rowling, Gavin Peers, Mick Leahy, Jimmy Keohane, Daniel Kearns, Craig Roddan, Liam Martin (Mikey Place 86), Kieran Sadlier (John Russell 68), Raffaele Cretaro, Achille Campion. Subs not used: Ciaran Nugent (GK), Gary Boylan, Pat McCann, Regan Donelon, Phil Roberts.
DUNDALK FC: Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Brian Gartland, Andy Boyle, Dane Massey; Ronan Finn, Stephen O’Donnell; John Mountney (Darren Meenan 70), Patrick McEleney (Robbie Benson 62), Daryl Horgan; David McMillan (Dean Shiels 89). Subs not used: Gabriel Sava (GK), Paddy Barrett, Chris Shields, Ciaran O’Connor.
REFEREE: Paul McLaughlin