Wednesday 23 May 2018

O’Donnell’s loss worse than defeat in Waterford

Soccer SSE Airtricity League Premier Division: Waterford 2 Dundalk 1

James Rogers at the RSC

The RSC will live long in the memory of Dundalk supporters for one of the club’s greatest triumphs back in the relegation play-off almost six years ago.

However, the club’s first visit to Waterford since then could prove costly in terms of adding to the unimaginable success achieved since that famous night in November 2012.

Losing to your title rivals is one thing, but losing your captain and leader is worse. This game was overshadowed by a serious injury to Dundalk midfielder Stephen O’Donnell, who broke his tibia following a coming-together with Stanley Aborah five minutes before half-time.

That incident had a huge bearing on a game which Stephen Kenny’s side looked to be in control of up to that point. Two stoppage time goals from Izzy Akinade at a time when the visitors’ heads weren’t quite right gave Alan Reynolds’ side an advantage that they would maintain despite Ronan Murray pulling a goal back in the ninth minute of additional time at the end of the half.

The result put Waterford level on points with Dundalk, who now trail Cork City by three points once again following their victory over Limerick on Saturday afternoon.

There are plenty of games coming up to bridge that gap, but the loss of O’Donnell could be telling. With Karolis Chvedukas also sidelined at present, midfield options are light and his leadership will be missed now that he is out for a prolonged period.

The side did well to cope without him when they won their maiden title under Kenny in 2014, but the league is a lot stronger and more competitive now. If Dundalk don’t go on to win the league this season then this is one of those games the side will rue most. It wasn’t just O’Donnell’s injury.

Just as in Cork a week earlier, the side created umpteen good chances but failed to take them. At best the Lilywhites should have left the RSC with a draw, but once again they lacked real potency when it mattered and were almost predictable to defend against when chasing the game.

Despite the home side shading the early exchanges, the best of the first-half chances fell Dundalk’s way. Murray scuffed wide following a poor clearance by Dylan Barnett on 13 minutes, before Michael Duffy fired well wide on the stretch after racing onto Robbie Benson’s pass six minutes later.

A flick-on at the near post by Murray from Duffy’s 31st-minute corner also looked destined to yield a goal for Daniel Cleary, but a telling touch by Akinade denied him.

Despite some good spells, it wasn’t until the 37th minute when Waterford registered their first shot, with Gary Rogers doing well to push Akinade’s header around the post from Garry Comerford’s cross.

Then came the sickening incident which resulted in O’Donnell being stretchered off. The challenge look innocuous at first, but the 32-year-old immediately put his arm in the air to signal there was a problem. During the six minutes or so it took for him to be helped from the field, a number of Dundalk players were visibly distressed, with Pat Hoban even being physically sick.

When the game resumed there followed a few crazy minutes that would decide the contest. While on one hand, it’s only human to be distracted by seeing your friend and colleague badly hurt, on the other some of the defending by Dundalk for the two goals they conceded was amateurish in the extreme.

That said, referee Derek Tomney would have a big say in their capitulation as he awarded Waterford a free kick on half-way despite the fact that Akinade had caught O’Donnell’s replacement Chris Shields with an elbow to his face.

The set piece in the second minute of additional time was taken quickly by Rory Feely, with Akinade getting up above Rogers at the edge of the box to the head to the net.

It was like Alkmaar all over again as the former Bohs player took a fist to the head in the process of scoring.

Rogers has been rightly lauded for his performances this season, but to come so far from his goalline and not to get the ball was a serious lapse in judgement.

Just when it looked like the halftime whistle couldn’t come soon enough, there came a second Waterford goal in the seventh minute of injury time. Gavan Holohan won a challenge with John Mountney, with Comerford picking up possession before threading a pass through to Akinade. He shifted away from Cleary, who was struggling with a knock himself, and drilled a left-foot shot across Rogers to the bottom left hand corner to make it 2-0.

Dundalk did manage to throw themselves a lifeline in the ninth minute of stoppage time, though, when Murray looped a free kick past Lawrence Vigouroux after Mountney had been fouled.

The visitors went in search of an equaliser in the second half, but their finishing let them down. On 50 minutes Duffy cut in off the left but pulled his shot to the left and wide. Hoban then got a header on Murray’s cross eight minutes later, but it was comfortable for Vigouroux.

Then came the game’s major contentious moment on the hour mark. Duffy got in behind Dylan Barnett on the left before going down under his challenge. From the press box it looked a stonewall penalty, but referee Tomney instead booked the Dundalk winger for diving - a decision which mystified even the home support.

Dundalk were lucky not to fall further behind two minutes later when Paul Keegan’s volley from the edge of the area came back off the inside of the post.

It was largely one-way traffic after that, but Dundalk lacked the cutting edge to get level. Hoban could only head across the six yard box after being picked out at the back post by Robbie Benson’s free on 65 minutes and eight minutes later Benson pulled a shot agonisingly wide after the ball had broken to him in the box following Bastien Hery’s tackle on Hoban.

Hoban then had two efforts in quick succession over the bar before Benson pulled a right-footed effort to the left and wide.

In the second minute of stoppage time Sean Hoare’s long throw dropped to Shields about eight yards out, but his effort was deflected wide. Jamie McGrath would have a header blocked by Feely after that as Waterford held out for a big win.

Dundalk have work to do in terms of making their superiority count in matches, but going forward the biggest challenge could be dealing with the loss of O’Donnell.

The Argus