Lucky 13 for Dundalk as they remain on course
The person who said that winning isn't everything, never won anything. Many Dundalk fans who attended Friday night's top of the table clash with Shamrock Rovers at Tallaght Stadium on Friday night felt a certain empathy with that view.
They knew that their team didn't play well, and in truth didn't fully deserve all three points, yet they realised that the 1-0 victory was a massive result in deciding the destination of this season's Airtricity Premier League title.
Securing those three points stretches Dundalk's lead at the top to eight points, completing a remarkable transformation in the eleven weeks since April 13th when, as a result of a 2-1 defeat in Sligo, they had slipped 13 points behind leaders, Shamrock Rovers.
Since that deflating defeat the champions have now won 12 and drawn once in a 13 game unbeaten run, and with thirteen games remaining, look on course to retain their title.
The animated scenes of celebration after the final whistle led by head coach, Vinny Perth in front of the equally effusive army of travelling supporters revealed the importance of the result for the players and supporters.
Equally revealing was the subdued manner in which the Rovers players and their supporters slumped away from the ground unable to comprehend the prospect that they may have surrendered their prospect of lifting the League title for the first time in eight years and after a performance that deserved some reward.
In games of this importance the tension of the occasion can impact on the performance of the players, and a predictability imposed by bland tactics with the result that the game never lives up to its billing. It was much like this on Friday night for while the setting was perfect, a calm, balmy summer's night, a near capacity crowd creating a great atmosphere, and a perfect surface, the game itself was a rather scrappy and tame affair.
Dundalk, on the back of their 12 match unbeaten run, and fortified by a three week break, including a training camp in Spain, were expected to be the more confident of the two sides, for Rovers had just a two week break at home after their demoralising defeat away to their great rivals, Bohemians.
It didn't turn out like that, especially in the first half when Dundalk looked out of sorts, nervous in possession, giving the ball away frequently, lacking any real intensity in their played and showing little penetration for there was no method to their attacking play.
In contrast Rovers were neat in possession, with their midfield combination of Dylan Watts, Greg Bolger and Ronan Finn knitting together some intricate passing movements at the heart of which was the silky skills of Jack Byrne, always probing, always seeking an opening for a shot.
The only saviour for Dundalk in this period of Rovers dominance was the home side's lack of a cutting edge for most of Rovers best moves were played in front of a Dundalk defence that was disciplined and alert and with a confident goalkeeper in Gary Rovers behind them.
Restricting Rovers to two real goal scoring opportunity during that first half was a major achievement for Dundalk, with the alert Rogers and a determined Dane Massey combining to turn away a Ronan Finn shot from Dan Carr's cross for a corner, while the crossbar was needed to keep out Byrne's speculative shot that had Rogers beaten.
The only consolation Dundalk fans could find in their half-time conversation was in the belief that their team couldn't perform as badly in the second half, and that with Robbie Benson and Jamie McGrath on the bench there was at least the prospect that there were midfield options available.
Both Benson who had been out for 19 weeks following his leg break and McGrath, who had been out for eight weeks with an ankle injury, had trained the previous week in Spain along with another long term injured player, Sean Murray who had been out for five weeks.
Murray was included from the start, but found it difficult to adjust to the pace of the game, and it didn't really make an impact until his side started to play with a little more fluency and determination at the start of the second half. It was the introduction of McGrath however for Murray in the 64th minute that turned the game in Dundalk's favour for the former Pats player immediately injected a great deal more energy into midfield, harrying opponents, and showing a composure on the ball that had been absence in much of Dundalk's first half play.
Not surprisingly McGrath's intelligence created the opening for the game's only goal, for taking a lovely cushioned header from Patrick McEleney that surprised two defenders, he fainted to go inside, making the opening to tread the ball between two defenders to Sean Gannon in with a beautifully weighed pass.
The full-back, and the man of the match, didn't panic, and with the Rovers 'keeper, Alan Manus expecting a cut back to Patrick Hoban, he slipped the ball between the netminder's legs. It was a goal worthy of the occasion, beautifully constructed and finished with great coolness.
Prior to that 73rd minute goal, Rovers fans were baying for referee, Robert Harvey's blood when he failed to send off Gary Rogers when he deliberately took out Trevor Clarke as he rounded the 'keeper.
Rogers had little other option as a moment of indecision in the heart of his defence, culminating in a sloppy pass, allowed Clarke clear, and as he pushed the ball round the advancing 'keeper he was taken down.
Fortunately for Dundalk the foul was outside the box, and just as fortunate was the new Uefa mandate introduced last December that taking down the last man or denying a goal scoring opportunity is no longer a automatic red card offence.
The rule change also affects goalkeepers, and Dundalk fans will recall the incident in the first game of the season when the Sligo Rovers 'keeper, McGinity was not send off, even though he conceded a penalty when taking down Robbie Benson and in the process broke the midfielder's leg.
The Rovers fans who were aware of the rule change still maintained the Rogers should have been sent off for a dangerous tackle, which was within the referee's compass, but the foul wasn't in that category, while the same Rovers fans conveniently ignored Dundalk's justifiable claims for a first half penalty when Clarke outstretched arm prevented Sean Gannon's cross from reaching its destination.
After Gannon's goal, Dundalk were content to play on the counter and having twice neatly robbed possession in their own half, carved out chances that Hoban and Michael Duffy might have converted with a little more composure.
Inevitably Rovers dominated the last quarter of the game, and with Clarke becoming an ever growing threat on the left flank it needed some determined defending, especially from McGrath when he moved to the wing, and from the central pairing of Brian Gartland and Sean Hoare to keep them from getting an equaliser which, on the run of play, they probably deserved.
Twice in the space of those final minutes, substitute Alan Greene got through on goal for shots that he snatched at when he looked certain to score.
The difficult for the Dundalk management team is that after the importance of the win in the context of the season should not be allowed camouflage the obvious conclusion that there were worrying aspects about the overall performance of the team and the form of a few key players.
They will be able to take some comfort by the prospect of having all of their injured midfield players available for the two matches against Waterford and Derry City before their European encounter with Riga for a repeat of the first half performance against Rovers and the European dream will not last beyond July.
Footnote: What a pleasure to attend a League of Ireland game in such a well appointed stadium, adequately serviced, and stewarded, for which credit must go to the organisers and the Gardai not forgetting the well behaved supporters of both sides, with the Dundalk fans, numbering almost 1,000 in the 5,000 attendance, doing their best to encourage the team when they weren't at their best.