Dundalk’s reputation for grabbing late goals was enhanced even further on Saturday night as Dane Massey popped up with a 92nd minute winner to give Stephen Kenny’s side all three points against Sligo Rovers at The Showgrounds.
Playing against ten-men for over 80 minutes following the dismissal of Ross Gaynor, it looked like the Lilywhites would leave the west rueing a missed opportunity to land an early blow on one of their title rivals.
Frustrated by the ten-men, Dundalk looked short of ideas to break Sligo Rovers down but the persistence that is fast becoming the hallmark of Kenny’s team shone through again when Massey turned home Andy Boyle’s header to send the travelling supporters on the far side of the ground into ecstasy.
Remarkably, Massey also scored the winner for Dundalk in the corresponding game between the sides last season. That victory was a milestone in the Lilywhites’ 2013 campaign and Kenny and co will hope that Saturday’s result will prove to be even more significant come the end of this campaign.
In terms of his team selection, Kenny reverted to his tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 system with David McMillan dropping to the bench and John Mountney added to the midfield. Mark Rossiter’s torn hamstring kept him out with Sean Gannon deputising.
The first-half was only 10 minutes old when the game’s major talking point occurred. A straight punt down the field by Peter Cherrie caught Gaynor on the back foot. Darren Meenan scurried in behind the former Dundalk player, going down under pressure just outside the penalty area. Contact was minimal but referee Dave McKeon was quick to make a decision and the Ardee man saw red.
From that moment on, the pattern of play was established. Dundalk enjoyed long bouts of possession without really threatening to open the Bit o’Red up. Ian Baraclough’s side erected two disciplined banks of four in front of their keeper and, to their credit, their compact shape left Dundalk frustrated.
When spaces did appear between the Sligo midfield and back four, it was Mountney - who was excellent in the advanced midfield position - that looked to profit more than most. Seven minutes after the sending off he raced clear from a Sean Gannon pass on the right, leaving substitute Danny Ledwith in his wake. White shirts flooded into the penalty area but Mountney picked the wrong option and the chance passed.
The best opportunity of the first-half, indeed of the opening hour, came in the 27th minute when Mountney again steamed in behind Alan Keane to get on to Massey’s pass and advance into the Rovers penalty area. Gary Rogers saved Mountney’s first effort with the Bohola man seeing his follow up bounce back off the upright.
The visitors’ dominance of possession and willingness to wait for an opening to arrive seemed to ruffle the feathers of those connected with the Sligo camp, in particular Bit o’Red club captain Gavin Peers and midfielder Kieran Djilali who were providing co-commentary for a local radio station. The duo’s criticism and comments about Dundalk and their players was completely unprofessional and totally at odds with what was happening on the pitch.
Half-time approached with Sligo Rovers looking comfortable. Dundalk continued to be rebuffed as they made their way into the final third and more often than not, an unnecessary extra pass would spoil a well worked move by Kenny’s men as they almost tried to walk the ball into the Sligo net.
The second-half continued in the same vein with Sligo looking even harder to break down. Danny North offered them an out ball and he split Boyle and Brian Gartland with a burst of pace in the 46th minute but the wet turf ensured the ball skipped through to Cherrie.
The rain began to fall hard and things became a bit tetchy towards the hour mark with Darren Meenan and Daryl Horgan both booked - much to the delight of Peers in the press box.
Kenny emptied his bench with David McMillan, Kurtis Byrne and Ruaidhri Higgins all introduced as Dundalk looked to ram home the numerical advantage. Their frustration continued to grow, however, and Hoban saw a close range header from a Horgan cross saved by Gary Rogers in the 73rd minute.
Dundalk continued to huff and puff and their last chance of finding that elusive goal looked to have came and went when McMillan, who looked lively again when introduced, flashed a header just past the post after being well picked out by Higgins.
As with recent weeks, Kenny’s team kept plugging away and, with the game approaching the second minute of stoppage time, they forced one more opportunity which led to the winning goal. McMillan was again involved against his old club, his effort deflected wide by his brother, Sligo Rovers centre-back Evan, for a corner. Higgins’s delivery was met by Boyle and Massey found himself in the right place to guide the ball home from close range.
McKeon’s final whistle arrived soon after and Peers remarked that Dundalk were celebrating like they had won a cup. No trophies were given out on Saturday night, but, even at this early stage, this win could go a long way to securing silverware come the end of the season.