Tallaght has never been the happiest of hunting grounds for Dundalk. Going into Sunday’s clash, the Lilywhites had only one league win under their belts at the venue, it coming way back in the early part of the 2010 season. Just for good measure, two Setanta Cup finals have also been lost in south Co Dublin.
The most recent of those came on May 10 of this year in a downpour against Sligo Rovers. It was also the last time Dundalk have tasted defeat in any competition. Since then, a 12 game unbeaten run has seen Stephen Kenny’s men advance on numerous trophy hunting fronts both at home and abroad.
League winning sides are defined by games like this. Coming less than 72 hours after their European win over Jeunesse Esch, this was the biggest test of Kenny’s side thus far. They responded with a performance that bore all the hallmark of champions.
Patrick Hoban’s 66th minute winner secured the win but this was as good a team performance as you will see. The attacking flair and high tempo which have been associated with Dundalk under Kenny were rarely evident here. Instead, his side displayed a maturity that was absent in games like this last season. The bitter experience of losing out in last year’s title race has added an extra dimension to this side. There is an aura about this group. Quite simply, they now know how to get the job done.
Kenny freshened his side up by making three changes to the side that beat Jeunesse Esch. One was enforced, the suspended David McMillan making way for Hoban. Chris Shields for Ruaidhri Higgins and Darren Meenan for John Mountney were the other two.
Four bookings and 24 free-kicks told the tale of a brutal first-half. Referee Paul McLaughlin seemed determined to stop the game from getting into any sort of rhythm, blowing his whistle for the slightest of indiscretions.
The stop start nature of the game affected Dundalk more than the hosts. Kenny’s men looked the more likely when they put any sort of cohesive football together, the best of which came in first half stoppage time.
Hoban, who endured a rare old physical battle with Rovers captain Conor Kenna throughout the half, sprayed a good pass out to Darren Meenan on the right. The winger’s lay off found the breaking Richie Towell but Barry Murphy made a fine stop to keep Towell’s powerful effort out. It was the only real occasion that either goalkeeper was employed in the opening period.
Dundalk looked a threat when they injected some tempo in their play. A Hoban ball in the 9th minute set Kurtis Byrne away on the left but, with players flooding into the Rovers box, Byrne opted to slow play down and the chance passed.
He did much better four minutes later, spotting Meenan breaking behind enemy lines. The pass was right on the money but Meenan - who looked extremely jaded in the second-half - couldn’t pull the ball out of the sky and Murphy came to collect.
Chris Shields found his way into McLaughlin’s book in the 25th minute, hooking Shane Robinson back after the Rovers midfielder looked set to run at the Dundalk back four.
It was the only black mark on Shields’ performance, the midfielder putting in a great shift, patrolling in front of his back four. There was a great example of his worth in the 32nd minute when Robinson’s quick free-kick found Gary McCabe in the Lilywhites penalty area. The Dundalk alarm was ready to sound but Shields snuffed the danger out brilliantly.
Rovers were dismal from open play and their best efforts came from set-pieces - a Ryan Brennan header that went off target in the 42nd minute - and long range efforts, Simon Madden testing his former team-mate Peter Cherrie with a curling effort that lacked venom.
When McLaughlin blew his whistle for half-time, it was a welcome relief to many in attendance.
Dundalk opened the second-half on the front foot but they never really looked like breaching the Hoops back four. Kenny reacted positively, introducing Donal McDermott just shy of the hour mark and the Ashbourne native showed plenty to suggest he can make a big impression for the remainder of this season.
Rovers continued to huff and puff but they almost pulled ahead against the run of play in the 62nd minute. Gary McCabe’s vicious cross from the left was met by Dean Kelly but Peter Cherrie was on hand to save. It proved to be McCabe’s last involvement; he was replaced by Sean O’Connor straight after with Trevor Croly’s decision attracting boos from the terraces.
The mood of the home supporters was darkened even more as Dundalk’s goal arrived four minutes later. Darren Meenan picked up a loose ball in the midfield, diverted right and fed Kurtis Byrne. His ball between goalkeeper and defence demanded to be put away and Hoban obliged, tapping home his 11th in all competitions at the far post.
There was only one team who looked like adding another goal and Towell forced Murphy into another impressive stop after breaking from midfield to take possession of a sublime pass from McDermott.
Croly - and Rovers’ - mentality was perhaps best summed up when the Hoops boss made his final throw of the dice, introducing the defensively minded Robert Bayly with his side in need of a goal. It was no surprise that many of those clad in green and white were left seething when the final whistle blew.
For Dundalk, there are no such issues in the camp. This win, arguably the biggest of the season could go a long way to ending a 19-year title famine.
The performance may not live long in the memory but the result certainly will. How those in Tallaght must wish that Stephen Kenny was still on their payroll.