Sunday 25 March 2018

PRICELESS! Hoban heads Lilies closer to Holy Grail

Chris Shields wins this aerial duel with Limerick FC striker Rory Gaffney
Chris Shields wins this aerial duel with Limerick FC striker Rory Gaffney

James Rogers

KURTIS Byrne's winner against Limerick back in March. Dane Massey's header against Sligo Rovers a week later. Richie Towell's last-gasp penalty away to Athlone Town at Easter. Darren Meenan's strike away to Limerick in May. Richie Towell's late equaliser away to Derry City at the end of June. Pat Hoban's winner away to Shamrock Rovers in July.

All massive goals in what is a massive season for Dundalk Football Club.

It's doubtful that any of those strikes were as potentially important as Hoban's header six minutes from time against Limerick at Oriel Park on Friday night.

After the disappointment of only drawing away to neighbours Drogheda United the previous week, Dundalk could ill afford to drop another two points in such quick succession. With Cork City having bounced back well from their defeat to the Lilywhites in Turner's Cross, allowing them to close the gap at the top from six to two points so quickly could have had a detrimental effect on confidence at Oriel Park.

This is, after all, a young squad with very little title-winning experience. While it would be immensely unfair to question their mental toughness, no one would have wanted to find out the potential impact of seeing such a strong lead fall apart in the space of a week.

That's something that looked a strong possibility for much of the game, with veteran goalkeeper Barry Ryan yet again producing an exceptional display by denying Dundalk time and time again with a string of top-class saves.

In contrast, Limerick never really looked like troubling Peter Cherrie, but draws for Dundalk at the moment are almost treated like defeats and 0-0 here would have been hard to stomach.

The breakthrough finally arrived in the 84th minute, though, when Hoban swooped to head home at the near post from Darren Meenan's corner. There was only going to be one winner after that, but the celebrations from the 2,256 in attendance at the end told you just how relieved they were.

It's a cliché that there will be no easy games between now and the end of the season, but this certainly proved it. It is another game chalked off, though, with the number of matches remaining now in the single figures. It also leaves room for error - something a two-point lead would not have.

There's still a long way to go until the end of the season, but if Dundalk do go on to claim their first league title in 19 years at the end of the season then Stephen Kenny's men may just look back at Hoban's winner on August 15th as one of the most important moments en route. For a long stage this looked like being a night of frustration.

After a sluggish start, the Lilywhites created the first clear cut chance on 14 minutes. Daryl Horgan cut in from the left touchline before slipping a wonderful pass through for the inrushing Massey, but the left-back's effort was well saved at point-blank range by the alert Ryan.

The Lilywhites wasted another good opening two minutes later when a neat little dink from Towell was flicked into the path of Byrne, but despite being unmarked from 10 yards out he blazed over.

Robbie Williams then threatened for the Shannonsiders on 24 minutes when he headed an Ian Turner corner just wide, but that was about as good as it got for Martin Russell's men.

Dundalk were creating all the chances, with Ryan getting down to turn a Towell shot around the post two minutes later, after the midfielder had caught Shane Duggan in possession at the edge of the Limerick box.

Ryan then proved his side's saviour once more on 37 minutes when he saved at close range with his legs from Byrne after the 24-year-old had been slipped through by Hoban.

The goalkeeper would again deny Byrne at the start of the second half, with his header from six yards out well saved low down following a cross from the right from Sean Gannon.

Towell then drilled over from the edge of the area after being teed up by Horgan, before Ryan came to Limerick's rescue once again with a point-blank save from Hoban's header.

Substitute David McMillan then almost opened the scoring with a shot from the edge of the area after his introduction on 71 minutes, but once again Ryan got down well to save.

Just when it looked like Dundalk were going to endure a night of frustration, however, up popped leading scorer Hoban in the 84th minute to head home from four yards out following an in-swinging corner from Meenan.

They should have added a second in the first minute of stoppage time when McMillan met a Gannon cross at the near post, but his header was inches wide.

The win was secured, though, and what a vital three points it could turn out to be.

The Argus