Inspired Horgan swings title back in Dundalk favour
Dundalk 2 Cork City 1
There must be times when Cork City people wonder how the last three years might have panned out if they didn't lose Daryl Horgan to Dundalk in the winter of 2013.
At that stage, there was no indication that the two clubs were about to become the major forces in Irish football. In Horgan, Dundalk have the outstanding player, a key factor in the back to back title wins with Cork as runners-up.
And, with Ireland manager Martin O'Neill in attendance, the 24-year-old made the decisive contribution in a pulsating top two clash to restore Dundalk's four point lead with five matches remaining. He described a stunning solo goal before half-time as his favourite goal of his career.
Afterwards, Kenny was in the dressing room telling his players to get the minds on Friday's date with Shamrock Rovers but realised that Horgan was absent. He was outside on media duty.
"I said, 'Where's Daryl?'," said the Dundalk boss. "Someone said 'he's at the Bernabeu!'
Horgan modestly played down his own contribution while expressing the hope that an Irish call might come his way. If he keeps delivering magic moments at key junctures, then he is bound to graduate to another level.
This win was a team effort, though, as Dundalk responded in the right manner to a weekend humbling at the hands of Sligo Rovers.
They still have work to do as their final three matches take place in a six-day window due to a European date with Zenit St Petersburg.
Kenny is still furious about the refusal to extend the campaign and suggested that they might have to field a weakened side against Zenit.
"We've got to overcome these obstacles," said the emotional Dubliner. "We've overcome a lot of obstacles in the past and we'll overcome them to make this a season to remember. I want that third league title and we're not relenting in pursuit of that."
His opposite number John Caulfield acknowledged that the locals deserved their success, yet he was unhappy with the free-kick that led to their opener.
It was a soft one with Patrick McEleney going down under a challenge from Alan Bennett. Horgan has been working on his frees all season without much success but this one was better, a right-foot curler that will go down as a Mark McNulty own-goal as it came off the bar and rebounded across the line off the stricken Cork 'keeper.
The visitors responded reasonably well with Kenny praising their passing and they applied pressure in the opening half hour of an encounter that really did live up to its billing.
This was the hyperactive version of frenetic - a game played at one hundred miles per hour with the dreadful surface adding another layer of unpredictability. Tackles flew in at pace. The entertainment came from the intensity.
Kenny made big calls with goalkeeper Gary Rogers dropped after a torrid run and Gabriel Sava coming in.
Right-full Alan Keane - who came out of retirement to sign up in August - was also summoned for a first league start with Sean Gannon absent. He subdued the excellent Stephen Dooley.
McEleney took two injections in his hip so he could play. He supported Stephen O'Donnell and Ronan Finn in an energetic midfield where Cork missed Gearoid Morrissey.
Horgan was the icing on top as Dundalk seized control ahead of half-time and he demonstrated his star quality with a goal that will feature in his showreel. When O'Donnell dispossessed Gavan Holohan to send the ball his way, the Galwegian was inside his own half.
He skipped away from Greg Bolger and sprinted forward to capitalise on a '3 v 2' situation and, with the runs of McEleney and Dave McMillan leaving centre halves Kenny Browne and Bennett torn between two decisions, Horgan chose the right moment to be selfish and rifled into the roof of the net to send the stadium wild.
Cork were staring defeat in the face at the interval but they have seriously improved this year and the introduction of Mark O'Sullivan made a difference. He was in the right place to convert a Steven Beattie cross and halve the deficit.
This is where Dundalk's experience kicked in. Kenny brought in Shields for McEleney and, instead of inviting pressure, they went in search of a third.
The locals bayed for a red card when Bolger and then Garry Buckley committed fouls when they were on a caution. Tom Connolly was unpopular after waving away a valid penalty shout in the first half when Bennett handballed.
Caulfield viewed the officiating from a different perspective. "The thing for us is we lack a bit of cuteness," he said. "Dundalk are very experienced and they know how to win frees and go down easily."
He had no complaints with the overall outcome, though. "They didn't allow a single good chance in the last 10 or 15 minutes, they've a hand on the title but every time we've lost a game we've bounced back."
The final quarter was arguably the most impressive aspect of the Dundalk success as they closed ranks efficiently with Cork's top scorer Sean Maguire kept quiet by centre halves Andy Boyle and Brian Gartland.
In the five minutes of added time, cheered on by a raucous crowd, white shirts pressed on in search of a third despite losing Keane to injury.
"The passion seperates Dundalk from other clubs," said Kenny, "There's an edge to the town and that drove the players to new heights tonight."
It earned them the most important three points of an extraordinary year.
Dundalk - Sava, Keane (Barrett 89), Gartland, Boyle, Massey; O'Donnell, Finn; Mountney, McEleney (Shields 58), Horgan; McMillan (C O'Connor 84).
Cork City - McNulty, Beattie, Bennett, Browne, O'Connor; Bolger, Buckley; Sheppard (Ogbene 74), Holohan (O'Sullivan 54), Dooley (Mulcahy 86); Maguire.
Ref - T Connolly (Dublin)