IT was literally men against boys at Oriel Park on Friday as a youthful and enthusiastic Dundalk came up well short against St Patrick's Athletic's team of seasoned pros.
The Lilywhites haven't beaten Pats at home since 1998 and one glance at the respective team sheets indicated that this was going to be another difficult night, with the visitors four years older per man (26 v 22).
Pats' starting XI contained three members of Shamrock Rovers' 2010 title-winning side and two other players with FAI Cup winner's medals, and although Dundalk often matched them in the physical stakes they hadn't sufficient quality to ask many questions of the opposition defence.
Once play got under way the writing was on the wall at an early stage as Sean Mccaffrey's team remained on level terms for all of eight minutes.
Dean Kelly had already forced an early corner for Pats, and they broke the deadlock when Kelly ghosted into the box unchallenged to meet ex-lilywhite Greg Bolger's diagonal pass. With one touch Kelly squared into the path of Stephen O'flynn who had time to take a touch before slotting past Peter Cherrie from 12 yards.
In such a young side, confidence can easily be shaken by an early setback, but in fairness Dundalk responded positively, Michael Rafter forcing Brendan Clarke into a save with a snap shot in the 10th minute.
Bolger sent a looping shot narrowly over Cherrie's crossbar following a lovely exchange with O'flynn, but on 16 minutes Stephen Mcdonnell burst forward from his own half and then held possession, before sweeping the ball wide to the right.
Gary Shanahan stepped over it as Derek Foran came up alongside him, but the rightback opted for an ambitious shot and was off balance as he blasted wildly over the bar.
Rafter, who was lively in these early exchanges, then set up Shanahan who shot straight at Clarke, before an enterprising run by left-back Dan Cunningham drew a rash tackle from James Chambers. Unfortunately the resulting free kick from 25 yards came to nothing, and it was a similar story when the pacy Shane O'neill accelerated out of defence menacingly but then ran himself into trouble in the centre circle.
Chambers bundled over Shanahan some 30 yards from goal in the 33rd minute, and this time Cunningham's curling free grazed the crossbar, although Clarke seemed to have it covered.
A Sean O'connor header into the side netting and a Kelly shot which was deflected wide by Foran were the only other threats to the Dundalk goal in the first half as Pats played lovely football but lacked a cutting edge in attack.
With their confidence perhaps restored, having held their more illustrious opponents scoreless since the eighth minute, Dundalk began the second half strongly as Cunningham ran onto O'neill's exquisite flick and advanced up the left touchline before being fouled by Kelly close to the corner flag.
Once more nothing came of the resulting free, and Pats almost made Dundalk pay as they countered with a move involving Bolger, Kelly and O'flynn which ended with Bolger stooping low to head narrowly wide from eight yards.
The Inchicore side were almost stunned in the 52nd minute, however. O'neill did well to force a corner kick and when Mcdonnell swung a quick delivery into the six-yard area, John Mountney rose highest and sent a looping header off the crossbar, before Robert Waters' followwas scrambled clear.
For the first time in the game the home supporters really came to life, and they roared on their favourites enthusiastically when Rafter pulled the trigger a minute later and once more tested Clarke from distance.
Football is a cruel game at times, though, and just as Dundalk were building up a head of steam the visitors killed the game stone dead in the 54th minute. Once more Bolger was involved, threading the ball through a big hole in the home defence, and John Russell bore down on goal before slotting another neat finish past Cherrie.
Manager Sean Mccaffrey responded by replacing Rafter and Shanahan with two even younger players in Chris Reilly and Bob Mckenna, and in fairness both newcomers made an impact with some enterprising runs, one from Reilly resulting in a booking for Bolger who was forced to drag his man down in full flight.
Pats, though, seemed to sense that they had the game won, and they relaxed into a slick passing game that should have yielded more goals in the final half-hour. Just after Russell's strike, left
back Ian Bermingham burst forward from O'connor's flick and cut the ball back into the path of O'flynn whose first-time shot flew just high and wide of Cherrie's left-hand post.
O'connor himself sliced badly wide in the 65th minute after his side's other full-back, Ger O'brien, had joined the attack, and O'flynn then held off his marker before driving a lost shot just wide, with Cherrie watching anxiously.
The Dundalk keeper was well positioned to deal with a looping header from Kenny Browne in the 79th minute, but a rare lapse in the Pats' defence almost set up a grandstand finish. Gareth Coughlan, who had just come on for O'neill, battled well for possession and managed to deliver a decent cross towards the heart of the penalty area. Bermingham inexplicably hesitated for a moment and the alert Foran got a foot in ahead of the defender, only to divert the ball wide.
In the final moments Darren Meenan fired into the side netting for Pats and the impressive Russell almost ghosted in for his second goal, but by that stage half of the home supporters had already headed for the exits, safe in the knowledge that there was going to be no fairytale ending.