Heartache for Dundalk as Cork make it a double
FAI Cup final: Cork City 1 Dundalk 1 (Cork City win 5-3 on penalties)
Heartbreak. Again. There's no good way to lose an FAI Cup final but if there is a crueler way than the manner in which Dundalk lost the last two then it's hard to imagine.
So good for so long but ultimately not good enough.
The fact the loss came to a Cork City side that haven't been shy to rub Dundalk noses in it makes it that bit harder to stomach.
Bottom line? They deserve it… and that's perhaps the hardest part.
Dundalk, for all their possession and desire to play the game the right way, were fortunate to get to the shoot-out that ultimately decided the contest. But for a man of the match performance from Gary Rogers the Rebels could have sneaked it much earlier.
The goalkeeper was perhaps one of maybe only two or three of Stephen Kenny's charges who raised their game above the norm on the day. In summing up the cruel nature of football, he would go on to collect the man of the match award seconds after watching his opposite number Mark McNulty - the pantomime villain of this tale - be the ultimate hero.
The 37-year-old Corkman ensured he would never be admired in Dundalk in the build-up to the game with his 'F*** the Lilywhites' chant. Ultimately it was his penalty save from Michael Duffy that decided the destination of this contest.
Penalties are a cruel lottery and, as such, perhaps the worst way to lose a game.
There'll be a sense for some time to come that Dundalk left this one behind them. And they did.
It looked like job done when Niclas Vemmelund rose to head Duffy's free kick to the top right hand corner in the fifth minute of extra-time.
The problem was that the players believed it too.
Despite dictating play for virtually the entire second half and the early part of extra-time, they began dropping deep and not using the ball wisely. Whereas before they could arguably be accused of too many sideways passes, suddenly there was not enough. Possession was needlessly squandered time and again and ultimately they were punished in the 111th minute.
Dundalk never recovered possession from the moment David McMillan kicked it into touch a minute and a half earlier.
Karl Sheppard, soon to switch colours from green to white, showed the quality he will bring to Oriel Park with an inch perfect pass for Achille Campion to latch onto. The substitute took one touch on his chest to control the lofted pass before firing through the legs of Rogers with his left foot to the bottom left hand corner.
From the press box initially the goal looked for all the world offside but replays showed assistant referee Robert Clarke got it spot on. Dane Massey, who had looked the weak link from the get-go, was inexplicably deeper than his defensive colleagues and had played the Frenchman on.
John Caulfield's gamble in throwing on Campion and Greg Bolger had paid off. Campion got the goal and Greg Bolger freshened things up in the middle to turn the tide in a game that looked to be going only one way prior to that.
While the Cork subs flourished, Dundalk's flopped. Dylan Connolly, despite winning the free that led to Vemmelund's goal, was virtually anonymous and was the player guilty of not getting close enough to Sheppard for the pass that led to his goal. John Mountney also failed to make any real impact but in fairness to both they hadn't played in several weeks before this - going back to late August in the latter's case.
Chris Shields was on the bench but a knee problem meant that Stephen Kenny was unable to call upon a man who, under normal circumstances, would have been best equipped in helping to close a game out and add much needed energy to the midfield.
Sean Hoare wasn't at fault for the goal but Brian Gartland, undoubtedly Dundalk's best defensive performer on the day, was a loss for his organisation alone when he came off at full-time with a suspected broken nose that was still gushing blood a half an hour after the game.
Ultimately the injuries that had plagued Dundalk in recent weeks came back to haunt them. The inability to call on Shields and the lack of impact from the subs was telling.
So too was the performance of Massey. The left back's positioning cost Dundalk an equaliser but having missed several weeks recently he didn't look right from the off. Virtually all of Cork's threat came down his side. It was the 44th minute before he made a positive defensive contribution and his attacking play was quite often found wanting too, with one sloppy pass to Conor McCormack almost costing his side on the counter in the 24th minute.
That's not a dig at Massey. In shape he justifiably takes his place in this side week in, week out. The problem was he had neither form nor fitness going into this and it showed. Crucially too, it was allowed persist.
His sluggishness was exposed as early as the fourth minute when Garry Buckley got in behind him with Robbie Benson having to get back to bail him out.
It was part of a superior start from Cork, who shaded the opening exchanges.
Despite this it was Dundalk who fashioned the first real chance with Jamie McGrath having a shot pushed away by McNulty at full stretch on eight minutes.
While that was a save you expected the goalkeeper to make, the first of two first half let-offs for Dundalk came four minutes later. Dundalk switched off from a corner four minutes later. It was taken short to Stephen Dooley whose cross was almost turned in at the near post by Alan Bennett only Rogers to deny him with his legs before Sean Gannon hooked clear.
Duffy would force another relatively routine save from McNulty on 16 minutes when shooting through the legs of Steven Beattie from Benson's exquisite pass.
Two minutes later Dundalk had Rogers to thank for keeping the scoreline at 0-0. Dooley was afforded space on the right to get a shot in that the keeper saved instinctively. He then made an even better stop to keep out Sheppard's follow up with an acrobatic leap across goal to push the ball out for a corner.
Having survived that scare Dundalk grew into the game but failed to take their best chance on 29 minutes. Duffy's shot coming in off the left was spilled by McNulty. McMillan was quickest to react to the loose ball and swung a left leg at it but saw his shot flash agonisingly wide of the post.
He would go close again two minutes later when he met Patrick McEleney's cross but on this occasion he could only glance wide under pressure from Shane Griffin.
It was better from Dundalk at this stage but the chances were few and far between. There was one possible opening two minutes into the second half when Benson's cross from the left was kept alive by the head of McGrath at the back post. McNulty was all at sea at this stage but McCormack was there to snuff out the danger before McMillan could pounce.
Dundalk were well on top at this stage but the only real chance of note in the early stages of the second half was a Jimmy Keohane shot from range on 50 minutes that was comfortable enough for Rogers.
Dundalk did go close on 63 minutes when McGrath crossed for Benson but his header was well saved to McNulty's left.
The Lilywhites continued to dominate after that but never really turned their possession into chances. That bit of magic was crucially missing and the Rebels soaked things up with relative ease.
Cork's threat at this stage was virtually non-existant but they almost sneaked the win in the 92nd minute when a free on half way gave them a rare opportunity to attack. Dooley's cross was kept alive by Sheppard with Bennett getting a flick on it before Buckley got a shot away that somehow Rogers managed to keep out.
That save was crucial as it afforded Dundalk extra-time.
Things looked to be going so well too when Vemmelund rose to head home Duffy's free kick in front of the Dundalk support.
In what was his last game in Irish football, it looked like the script had been written for a fairytale finale.
It wasn't to be.
Campion's equaliser forced penalties and a heartbreaking conclusion.
The spot kicks from both sides were superb. Sheppard, Bolger and McCormack all found the net for Cork only to be cancelled out on each occasion by equally impressive penalties from McMillan, Stephen O'Donnell and Benson.
Beattie then made it 4-3 before the crucial moment. Duffy shot to McNulty's right and the keeper saved. It's a cliche to say it was a poor penalty and a good height for the keeper. They're all good when they go in and all bad when they don't. Duffy had never looked confident though.
It was a cruel blow on one of Dundalk's better players on the day.
It was then left to Cork's third substitute Kieran Sadlier to wrap things up and he did with a cool finish to the bottom left hand corner. Rogers almost got there, just as Dundalk almost got the cup they craved.
The double was Cork's. For Dundalk it was heartbreak.
There will be accusations of a disappointing year and that's understandable. The falls wouldn't be as hard to take if we hadn't experienced such highs.
2017 was always going to be a year of transitioning following the loss of three key players from last season and the introduction of so many new faces. In that regard, one cup, a cup final and second place isn't bad.
Dundalk have grown to want and expect more though and this was a game that was ultimately left behind.
The outcome was a bitter pill to swallow but now it needs to be the driving motivation to get back on top in 2018 - and that is certainly not beyond this side or Stephen Kenny.