Sunday 20 January 2019

Second-half intensity needed from here on

Robbie Benson impressed on Friday night.
Robbie Benson impressed on Friday night.

Kevin Mulligan

Stephen Kenny, known for his meticulous approach, will harbour contrasting thoughts - although perhaps not for public consumption - about Friday night's remarkable, yet highly entertaining SSE Airtricity Premier League game against Shamrock Rovers at Tallaght Stadium.

The Dundalk manager will take most delight in securing all three points to maintain their two point advantage over champions, Cork City (result of last night's game in Cork unknown at time of writing) at the top of the table.

He will also be delighted that on this occasion, unlike previous games this season, most notably at home, his side converted the majority of the chances they created, and registered their 50th goal in the campaign in this their 21st match, which is quite an achievement.

The manager will also delight in the resolve that his players showed in overcoming the considerable setback of conceding a 4th minute goal as a result of some sloppy defending, and that their experience allowed them weather a first 20 minutes in which they were second best in in almost every facet of the game.

During that period when Rovers deployed the tactics that their captain, Ronan Finn revealed beforehand on radio to take the game to their visitors from the kick-off, Dundalk were fortunate not to concede a second goal when Gary Rogers did well to spread himself to stop a point blank header from Daniel Carr, while Rovers had a very strong claim for a penalty denied when Brian Gartland seemed to catch Aaron Bolger with a tackle in the box.

That resolve and composure shown by the players was needed again in the second half when they immediately bounced back with a beautifully constructed and finished goal from Robbie Benson after Rovers scored their second goal in the 71st minute to cut the deficit to 3-2 will also have delighted their manager.

He will however take considerable time to ponder those first 20 minutes when his defence which had conceded just eight goals in their previous 20 games looked nervous, vulnerable and extremely panicky under pressure.

The concession of that early goal when Dane Massey and Benson didn't deal properly with their own throw-in near the left corner flag didn't help, but normally assured players like Daniel Cleary and Massey and to a lesser extent, Gartland and Sean Hoare were struggling to cope with the movement of the impressive Carr, and the probing of Finn, the industry of the Bolgers, Greg and Aaron, and the trickery and control of Joel Coustrain on the home side's right flank.

It was ironic in many respects that Cleary who had his poorest game with the club popped up with his first goal for the Lilywhites, that Massey who didn't get to grips with Coustrain until the second half also found the net, while Benson who, apart from his early lapse, gave the ball away too frequently in the first half, more than redeemed himself with two exceptionally fine finishes in the second half.

Many, like Brian Kerr, co-commentator on the live TV broadcast, would say that the experience that Benson, Massey and to a lesser extent Cleary bring to the team allowed them overcome setbacks during a game to still be able to make a telling contribution, while Rovers, who tried to compensate for the loss of Graham Burke (on Irish team duty), Carr and Finn through first half injuries, had to rely on two 17-year-olds to try and chase the game.

The reality too was that Rovers, especially after the departure of Finn, had not the physical capacity to match Dundalk as the game progressed, for while they have some very good young players who are comfortable on the ball, and who played, at times, very entertaining football, they just could not cope with the power, strength and fitness of players like Chris Shields who had another outstanding game, Jamie McGrath who showed some delightful touches and a keen appetite for work (one second half tackle in his own box when he prevented an almost certain goal an illustration of his progress this season), Benson, who is now finding his scoring touch, and to a lesser extent Dylan Connolly who, when Rovers were on top in that first half, was always making himself available for the out ball.

The setback of conceding so early and the inspiration Rovers took from that goal to increase the intensity in their play meant that Dundalk couldn't get into the game until close to the half hour when mark when they started to string together some passages of play that has become their hallmark.

They relied heavily on Pat Hoban during that spell to give them a foothold in the Rovers half and just when he was needed most the League's top scorer popped up with a quality goal that eased nerves and deflat not just the Rovers team but their supporters who, during this season, have seen their team surrender leading positions.

Hoban's goal, in the 37th minute, a classic header, powerful and downwards into the corner of the net giving Tomer Chencinski no chance was nicely carved out with Michael Duffy finding the unmarked Benson with a quick free that fooled the home defence, and when Benson's cross was weakly cleared to Duffy he chipped the most beautifully weighted cross onto Hoban's head.

It was Hoban's 15th goal of the season, prompting a debate during the TV coverage as to why Hoban, and players like him, fail to make the expected impact when they transfer across the water, yet when they return they are as effective as they ever were, with Cork's Graham Cummins, now scoring freely with the Leesiders another obvious example.

Kerr, the former Irish manager, who raised the question, never offered an answer, other than the players thrive in their own home environment, but the reality is that Patrick Hoban has benefited from his stint in the lower divisions in England, and is a better player than the one who left three seasons ago.

On Friday night he was a real handful for the Rovers defence, deservedly collecting Kerr's man-of the match award, for his strength in holding up the ball was invaluable throughout, he never faltered in his defensive duties winning many headers in his own box, and his link play was sharper than ever, one ball over the top that released Duffy for a run on goal was outstanding.

He too should have had a penalty when Robert Lopas who was extremely fortunate to be still on the pitch after he almost cut McGrath in half with a high tackle, pulled back the Dundalk striker, not once, but twice as he broke free in the box in the second half.

Rovers title ambitions are over and they will struggle to secure European football next season, but losing players of the calibre of Burke before the game, and during the game, Carr and Finn who sustained a head injury in a sickening head clash with Gartland, would be difficult for any team.

For Dundalk the lesson they must take from Friday is that failure to meet the intensity of their opponents from the outset can be costly, and in their 15 remaining games starting on Friday against relegation candidates and a club in crisis, Limerick FC they must match the application that they showed to sweep Rovers away in the second half.

The Argus