It might be all over after Gannon's late winner sinks Rovers
Shamrock Rov 0 Dundalk 1
"And they thought it was all over," read a banner in the away section as the teams made their way onto the pitch at Tallaght Stadium on Friday night. It might be now.
A 73rd minute Sean Gannon strike saw Dundalk move eight points clear at the top of the SSE Airtricity League table as Vinny Perth's side took a huge step towards five league titles in six seasons.
There's still a long way to go, of course, with the possible rollercoaster of Europe still to come into the equation. Nevertheless this result over nearest challengers Shamrock Rovers felt significant in more ways than one.
There's no doubt that Dundalk were far from their best on the night with their ball retention poor and several key players struggling to get into the game. However, despite looking slightly leggy the champions showed a quality that some of their opponents can lack at times - getting the job done when not at their best.
So often the Lilywhites are praised for their attacking qualities - and rightly so - but on Friday they showed they are willing and able to roll their sleeves up and put in a solid defensive shift too.
For all Shamrock Rovers' attacking toil, they rarely cut their opponents open and while the lively Jack Byrne did strike the crossbar, by and large Gary Rogers had little to do with much of the sleek passing played in front of the Dundalk defence.
While no one at Oriel Park will be counting their chickens just yet in relation to another title, this result was huge. It was only two-and-a-half months earlier that certain pundits had declared the title race over after Stephen Bradley's side had opened up a 13 point lead on the reigning champions.
In the period since then Dundalk have begun to click into gear and after Friday's result there has been a 21 point swing with the Lilywhites now holding a commanding eight point lead at the summit - their largest advantage at this stage of the modern era.
An injury to Jordan Flores at the end of the Spanish training camp meant that Perth was forced into changing up his midfield. Sean Murray was thrown into the fray having played just 70 minutes since the defeat away to Sligo Rovers 77 days earlier and that coming as far back as the win away to Cork City in mid-May.
The former Watford player did well at times but the lack of game time was evident in a first half in which none of the Dundalk midfielders got tight enough to their opponents.
As a result, most of the threat was from the home side who had a couple of early efforts go just wide from Byrne and Dylan Watts.
The first real signs of spice to the game then arrived on 12 minutes when Trevor Clarke became the first name in referee Rob Harvey's notebook for a very late and wild challenge on John Mountney on the half way line.
Despite plenty of endeavour from the Hoops after that, there was nothing to overly trouble the visitors, who could well have taken the lead against the run of play on 36 minutes when Patrick McEleney's chip into Michael Duffy saw the winger lay off to Sean Gannon, who couldn't keep his effort from the edge of the area down.
Dundalk then had a let-off of their own a minute later when Dan Carr's ball in from the left picked out the inrushing Ronan Finn at the back post. He beat Rogers with his first-time shot but Dane Massey had read the situation perfectly by throwing his body across to block on the line.
Another minute later and Dundalk had got off the hook once more when a long range effort from Byrne cannoned back off the crossbar.
At that stage the large travelling support couldn't wait for the half-time whistle but just before it sounded they were unfortunate not to see their side awarded a penalty when Gannon's attempted cross from the right was cut out by the outstretched left arm of Sean Kavanagh. Despite being in perfect view of the assistant referee on that side and the fact it was clearly hand to ball, Dundalk's appeals for a spot kick fell on deaf ears.
Dundalk upped the ante at the start of the second half with Patrick Hoban having an effort blocked by Greg Bolger eight minutes after the restart before good combination play up the left involving Murray, Duffy and McEleney saw the latter fire into the side-netting.
The visitors almost shot themselves in the foot on 61 minutes, however, when a loose pass from Sean Hoare allowed Trevor Clarke to burst clear. Rogers raced from his line in an attempt to clear but Clarke got there first to knock the ball past the goalkeeper before taking a tumble. Despite the home side's calls for a red card, referee Harvey correctly produced yellow as Clarke's touch was so heavy and away from goal that it was not an obvious goalscoring opportunity that had been denied.
Then came the breakthrough on 73 minutes. Duffy's cross was headed clear but only as far as McEleney who picked out substitute Jamie McGrath with a header that took two Rovers defenders out of the equation. McGrath then shimmied to take Greg Bolger out of play before laying off to Gannon on his overlap. He then calmly slotted through the legs of Alan Mannus with the covering Joey O'Brien unable to prevent the shot from creeping to the net off the inside of the left hand post.
The goal sparked wild celebrations in the away end but Dundalk still had a long 20 minutes or so to hold out, during which the likes of McGrath excelled.
Hoban and Duffy both had chances to kill the game on the break but neither could take them, which meant that Rovers were still hopeful of snatching a point as the game entered is final minutes. Substitute Aaron Greene would pass up their best two chances, pulling an effort agonisingly wide before lashing over from Lee Grace's long ball forward soon after.
The champions held out to go eight points clear.
They thought it was all over, indeed. It wasn't, of course, but it might be now. There's still work to do but this felt significant.