O'Neill's leveller gives Lilies huge reality check
Drogheda Utd 1 Dundalk 1
Just when it seemed this League of Ireland race was set to end in August and anti-climax, a night of twists and turns resulted in Dundalk's lead at the top being reduced to four points.
A combination of Colin Healy's late winner in Turner's Cross and Gary O'Neill's equaliser here in United Park served to provide Cork with an injection of hope and remind Dundalk that prizes are rarely, if ever, handed out prematurely in this league.
While they remain top, remain favourites and remain on course for their first title in 19 years, last night's game provided a dose of reality. Teams will want to knock them off their perch. The run-in promises to be feisty.
Certainly last night's game was. Full of passion, it saw both teams play with attacking intent and both deservedly get a point their performance deserved.
But having lost just twice in the League this season – once on the opening night at this venue – Dundalk arrived at United Park aiming for three points, energised by the high volume of noise their travelling supporters were making, absolute in their belief that this will be their year.
Shaped around a 4-3-3 system, they attacked and defended as a unit, Richie Towell their dominant figure in central midfield, where the excellence of his technique allowed Dundalk to win the possession war.
But if Towell was Dundalk's major player, then Gary O'Neill was performing that duty for Drogheda from a more advanced position, where his intelligent movement and sharp interplay ensured the hosts made the most of whatever chances came their way.
And in the first half there were plenty of opportunities for both teams – Michael Daly firing in a powerful shot that forced Peter Cherrie into making an instinctive block in the first minute, Darren Meenan replying almost immediately at the other end, troubling Micheal Schlingermann with a low cross.
On it went, Dundalk pressing, Drogheda counter-attacking, neither side prepared to give an inch.
And as the pace remained frantic, it seemed, early on, that Drogheda would eventually wilt under the constant pressure. But they didn't. They hustled, they harried, they closed the space around Towell and showed enough self-confidence whenever possession fell their way to make a game of it.
Gavin Brennan was one of their key men, his positioning in between the lines of attack and midfield, giving Drogheda an additional outlet to O'Neill.
Dundalk, in contrast, had no shortage of attacking options, Meenan and fellow winger, Daryl Horgan, having big influences on the game.
And eventually – after 19 minutes of entertainment, a goal arrived to provide the game with additional excitement, Pat Hoban getting it when his diving header connected with Meenan's corner.
A goal behind, Drogheda could have been forgiven for folding. A month ago, they certainly would have but since Darius Kierans, and more recently, Damien Richardson, arrived in their dugout, their confidence has grown.
We saw as much in terms of how they responded to the Dundalk goal, finding an equaliser within a minute courtesy of O'Neill, who collected the ball with his back to goal, shaped to go right before moving to his left where he turned, found space and fired a hard, high shot past Cherrie.
Level, Dundalk were momentarily shaken before they re-asserted themselves. Yet nothing came easy.
Drogheda, determined to gatecrash their neighbour's party, kept up the pressure. It was enough to secure a draw.
Drogheda United – Schlingermann; Doyle, McNally, McGuigan, Grimes; Brady, Holohan, Daly (McGlynn 79), Walshe; Brennan; O'Neill (O'Brien 90)
Dundalk – Cherrie; Gannon, Gartland, Boyle, Massey; Towell, Byrne (McDermott 71), Shields; Meenan, Hoban (McMillan 85), Horgan (Mountney 90)
Ref – N Doyle (Dublin)