Patrick Hoban's header secures victory for Dundalk
Dundalk 1 Limerick 0
IT won't figure in the goal of the season race but the Patrick Hoban header that secured victory for Dundalk could prove crucial in securing a far more significant prize.
Stephen Kenny's charges dropped points in Drogheda last week to open the door to the chasing pack and they were six minutes away from another home slip-up against a side that always causes them problems.
They kept probing, however, and Hoban seized the moment with a near-post header from a Darren Meenan cross that finally found a way past evergreen Limerick 'keeper Barry Ryan.
It allowed the Oriel Park crowd to breathe a huge sigh of relief, although they then had to suffer through six minutes of injury time before they could really celebrate.
This success maintains their four-point lead at the top of the table with nine matches remaining.
Limerick claimed three points from this venue last year at a point where Dundalk's title challenge was beginning to veer off the tracks.
They entered this game with an even more stifling level of expectation with the mood around their prospects gradually shifting from pleasant surprise to nervous anticipation.
Anxiety was a feature of the scoreless first half. Dundalk were unnecessarily hurried at times, a contrast from the composure that has been evident in their rise to the top of the table. The expectant natives had cause for worry in the early stages when Limerick's lone attacker Rory Gaffney, a serious player, twice threatened.
Still, while Dundalk's performance lacked the usual fluency, they could have gone in comfortably ahead at the interval with the visitors' complacent rearguard offering plenty of encouragement to the Louthmen.
Kurtis Byrne was the main culprit in the profligacy stakes. Shortly after a Dane Massey drive was stopped by the feet of Ryan, the attacker had the space to size up a Hoban flick but fired wildly over. He had even longer to consider his options just shy of the interval but shot tamely at the feet of the experienced netminder.
Richie Towell wasted the best opportunity though, with the incessant pressing of the newly-crowned player of the month forcing a slip from Shane Duggan as he collected a short Ryan kick-out. Alas, his subsequent strike was short of the power to find a way past the formidable stopper.
Ryan turns 36 later this month, yet there are no signs that age is getting the better of him as he demonstrated with two further stops to deny headers from Byrne and Hoban before the hour mark and he continued to frustrate the locals.
Kenny eventually turned to his bench and newcomer Dave McMillan stung his fingers with a right-footer upon his introduction as Limerick stayed deep with a view to securing the draw.
This Dundalk operation are a dogged bunch though and the arrival of Ruaidhri Higgins allowed them to control the tempo for the remainder.
Eventually, the weight of pressure paid off and then it was simply about keeping check of the emotions for the additional period. To their credit, 'keeper Peter Cherrie was untested.
Indeed, McMillan might have put a comfortable look on the scoreline at the death but he blasted over the bar from inside the box. Dundalk will be hoping the collective shooting boots return for Monday's trip to Sligo.
Dundalk - Cherrie, Gannon, Gartland, Boyle, Massey; Shields [Higgins 79], Towell; Meenan, Byrne [McMillan 70], Horgan; Hoban [Mountney 88]
Limerick - Ryan, Nzuzi, Oji, Folan, Williams; Duggan, Hughes; Turner [Tracy 85], Lynch, Doherty [Djilali 73]; Gaffney [McManus 64]
Ref - R Rogers [Dublin]