Champions weather late storm to frustrate Rovers
Dundalk 2 Shamrock Rovers 1
The new pitch at Oriel Park looks like it needs time to bed in and, on this evidence, the same can be said for Shamrock Rovers.
Stephen Bradley has stressed that Dundalk remain the benchmark in his eyes and the league champions kicked off their title defence with a victory which demonstrated their savvy in frenetic encounters.
At the end, the natives were singing about the possibility of winning four leagues in a row - a chant that Rovers followers have the exclusive rights for at this stage - and Stephen Kenny will be quite happy with the response to last week's President's Cup drubbing in Cork.
It was nervier than he would have liked in the dying stages with a Rovers team reduced to ten, following a ten-minute debut for sub Graham Burke that featured a goal and a red card, finishing with purpose that will have encouraged Bradley.
Dundalk lost their way a bit when key men Stephen O'Donnell and Patrick McEleney were forced off by injury but they did enough when this game was in the balance to get them across the line. That is the value of experience. Rovers benefited from that when Ronan Finn, their shock acquisition from Dundalk, came into the fray in the second half with an injury-interrupted pre-season curtailing his involvement. They lacked real midfield direction before his introduction.
That said, they started brightly enough. Bradley did also pick up Darren Meenan and Michael O'Connor from the fringes of Kenny's squad and they were both involved in testy early exchanges on a surface that looked slow at times, with pellets springing up like geysers.
Dundalk players only trained it for the first time on Thursday and they are confident that it will be much better than the old bouncy castle.
They demonstrated their belief in the surface with early attempts to fizz the ball around at the back that almost led to a disaster with Paddy Barrett miscontrolling a Brian Gartland pass and Meenan curling wide with just Gabriel Sava to beat.
The latter did not inspire confidence in Cork and escaped embarrassment when he took an age over a clearance that O'Connor managed to block in the direction of an empty net - but he was pulled up for handball.
Rovers did try and press hard but Dundalk began to control the game with skipper O'Donnell influential and McEleney showcasing his tricks in the number ten role. They also drew encouragement from shaky Rovers defending from set-pieces; Dane Massey squandered a gilt-edged opening.
The breakthrough came after the half-hour mark and came from sloppy Rovers passing in the midfield area with Ryan Connolly and Roberto Lopes both guilty of giving the ball away.
On this occasion, Lopes was punished with the lively John Mountney driving on and feeding Daryl Horgan's replacement Michael Duffy whose initial cross shot was blocked but he reacted by stabbing a right-footer across the box where a trademark well-timed run from Robbie Benson was met with an accurate finish that was deflected over the line by Dave Webster.
Dundalk deserved to lead at the break, although a Brandon Miele free just before the half-time cuppa did have Sava scrambling.
Before Bradley could ready Finn for his introduction on the hour mark, the Dubliners were two down.
Kenny has tipped McEleney for big things this season and he picked the pocket of Daniel Devine before sending in the perfect cross for the head of Ciaran Kilduff. 2-0.
Finn came in to a cocktail of boos and applause and the jeers grew when he scrapped with the O'Donnell and was booked. Dundalk then lost their captain to injury and McEleney hobbled off to join a lengthy list - regulars Chris Shields, Dave McMillan and Gary Rogers were absent here.
New faces Conor Clifford and Jamie McGrath were sprung by Kenny but Rovers did benefit from Bradley's switches and their hopes were raised by Burke's cameo.
With 15 to go, the one-time Dundalk target halved the deficit with an effort that looped over Sava via a flick off Barrett. But three minutes later Burke was given a straight red for a daft late tackle on McGrath that prompted a bout of shoving between players from both sides.
Rovers finished strongly with a man down with a patched-up Dundalk operation happy to try and run down the clock and an injury-time flick from Dave McAllister almost nicked a sensational point for the visitors. They will have learned a lot from this exercise. Dundalk will take the three points and move along.
Dundalk - Sava, Gannon, Gartland, Barrett, Massey; O'Donnell (Clifford 68), Benson; Mountney, McEleney (Vemmelund 83) Duffy (McGrath 70); Kilduff.
Shamrock Rovers - Chencinski, Madden, Webster, Devine, Clarke; Lopes (Burke 68), McAllister; Meenan, Connolly (Finn 59), Miele; O'Connor (Boyd 60).
Ref - N Doyle (Dublin)