Thursday 18 July 2019

'Just like Heaven' as Dundalk five clear

SSE Airtricity League Premier Division: Finn Harps 0 Dundalk 3

James Rogers at Finn Park

When 2019 is looked back on in the months and years ahead, Saturday June 8th will probably be best remembered for two major concerts - Metallica at Slane Castle and The Cure at Malahide Castle.

Some distance away from those venues in the North West of the country in Ballybofey, Dundalk took another huge step towards ensuring the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division title still resides in Fortress Oriel come the end of October.

With the home crowd diminished by Donegal's involvement in the Ulster Championship semi-final against Tyrone earlier that afternoon, just 782 turned up at Finn Park for what could prove to be one of the pivotal nights in this year's title race.

For the large travelling support, it was 'Just Like Heaven' when their side's second goal almost immediately coincided with news filtering through from Tallaght Stadium that Derry City had come from two behind to claw their way back level with Shamrock Rovers.

Confirmation of that game finishing in a 2-2 draw just as Vinny Perth's side had returned to the dressing-room for their half-time break meant that Dundalk only needed to finish the job they had started to open up a five-point lead at the top. It might not have been pretty at times, but they did just that.

A run of 11 wins from 12 league matches since losing on their last trip to the North West 57 days earlier in Sligo had seen them turn a 13-point deficit into a five-point lead, albeit with a game more played.

While Rovers will have a chance to respond with their game in hand away to Bohemians on Friday night, it means that Dundalk are guaranteed to be sitting on top when the two sides meet in the Lilywhites' next outing in Tallaght on June 28th.

There's a long way to go, of course, but Saturday felt significant. It leaves the reigning champions on 49 points from 21 games played, the same number they had after the same number of matches in 2018, 2016 and 2014. They would go on to win the league title in all those seasons.

The turnaround in recent weeks has been nothing short of superb, but with Robbie Benson, Jamie McGrath and Sean Murray amongst those still to return, there's a real sense that Dundalk are just building up a head of steam.

While Europe and the distraction it presents is an obvious worry, especially given the evidence of points dropped in previous years, the squad's ability to rotate looks better than at any point in recent years. This suggests they could be better than ever prepared to deal with battles on multiple fronts.

While that's something to worry about down the line, for now you have to be happy with where Dundalk are. Given Stephen Kenny's departure at the start of the season and the injury problems the side have had, to be ahead of the chasing pack going into the mid-season break is more than anyone could have hoped for.

There will be those who feel Dundalk can play better, and maybe they are right, but this side have a great habit of winning by whatever means necessary and as Metallica famously sang 'Nothing Else Matters'.

With no game next week, Dundalk enter their prolonged mid-season break in better shape than most could have hoped for not so long ago. The band are really only warming up, though, and you get the sense that the biggest hits have yet to come.

The game itself was one of limited clear-cut opportunities, with Dundalk struggling to test Finn Harps' debutant goalkeeper Mark Anthony McGinley for long periods.

Pat Hoban did get a chance to shoot at the former Donegal GAA panellist after racing onto a Chris Shields pass inside the opening two minutes, but he pulled his effort across goal, with Michael Duffy just failing to turn it in at the back post.

Hoban would have another couple of efforts with his head before the breakthrough finally arrived on 32 minutes.

John Mountney charged down the right before delivering a superb cross to Duffy, who met it superbly to head past McGinley to the bottom right-hand corner.

Mountney then doubled his side's advantage two minutes before the break. Hoban laid off to Patrick McEleney, with Mountney rising to get a header away. McGinley got a palm to it, but could only help the header into the bottom left-hand corner.

Jordan Flores had a couple of half-chances at the start of the second half before Harps registered their first shot on target from a Daniel O'Reilly free which Gary Rogers saved with ease on 54 minutes. The Dundalk goalkeeper was called into action again two minutes later when he was forced to turn a Mark Coyle effort around the post.

Dundalk almost added a third on 58 minutes when Mountney's cross from the right picked out Duffy, but this time McGinley managed to parry his header clear before it was hooked to safety.

The third did arrive three minutes later when Flores whipped a free kick in from the right which Gartland met to head to the bottom left hand corner.

Dundalk took their foot off the gas slightly after that, with Harps having a number of late chances. Rogers did well to save from Jacob Borg and O'Reilly either side of a Mikey Place effort that really should have resulted in a goal.

Georgie Kelly did hit the crossbar with a header from his namesake Daniel's cross in stoppage time, but Dundalk had done their business.

This game won't live long in the memory, but the results of the night could well turn out to be significant.

The Argus