Thursday 23 May 2019

Shaping up to be most open title race in years

Kevin Mulligan

The disappointment for Dundalk of having surrendered a two-goal lead against Derry City at Oriel Park was eased considerably by the result the following night in Sligo, when leaders Shamrock Rovers suffered their fourth defeat of the season and third in their last four games.

All of this means that if Dundalk win their game in hand on Rovers, away to Bohemians on Friday night, they will take over leadership of the league, albeit on goal difference.

That task in Dalymount won't be easy, given the Dubliners' form this season, and will be made considerably more difficult by the absence of leading scorer Patrick Hoban, sent off against Derry in controversial circumstances in that 2-2 draw.

Bohs are again Dundalk's opponents two weeks later when they visit Oriel Park, and sandwiched in between is a tricky trip to Turner's Cross to play a resurgent Cork City who, having let manager John Caulfield depart, caused a real upset by beating Bohs on their home patch last Friday.

That result, plus Waterford's 3-0 hammering of St Patrick's Athletic in Richmond Park - after the Blues put up only token resistance at home to Dundalk four days previously - and an improving Sligo's win over Rovers is a indication that this is likely to be the most open title race for some seasons.

In those circumstances Dundalk supporters will be hoping that the loss of two points to Derry on Friday night, for it felt like two points lost rather than one gained, does not count come the end of the campaign in October, for having done the hard work in taking the two goal lead, silly defensive mistakes and a lack of concentration proved costly in the end.

The first half was much of a non-event, with the well organised and robust Derry team confining Dundalk to two real chances, both of which fell to Michael Duffy. The first was conceded by some sloppy defending, but both were kept out of the net by excellent goalkeeping from Peter Cherrie, the former Dundalk player.

In that first half Dundalk struggled for any fluency, most notably in the attacking midfield area where the absence of Jamie McGrath - who sustained a serious foot injury in Waterford and is likely to be out for six to eight weeks - was badly missed.

His replacement, Jordan Flores, is a neat player on the ball and sees passes that others don't, such as the clever manner in which he found Hoban for the opening goal, but he is unable to bring the energy that is needed and which McGrath supplies to the midfield area, and isn't quick enough to get on the end of Hoban's hold-up play and cunning flicks and passes.

The injury to McGrath, adding to the serious injuries to Robbie Benson, Patrick McEleney, Chris Shields, John Mountney and Sean Murray, has deprived the team of vital players - all from the midfield area - for lengthy spells and for that reason head coach Vinny Perth will be happy that they have kept in touch with the leaders.

It can also be seen as a reason why the team has failed to hit top form this season, and while there has been spells of excellent play in the five-game unbeaten run, they have also lacked conviction and consistency at times and are conceding too many soft goals, such as the two gifted to Derry, and others to UCD and Rovers in recent games.

Some argue that chopping and changing the back four hasn't helped, with Daniel Cleary inter-changing with Brian Gartland in successive games, and Dane Massey - who many felt was playing his best football and combining well with Michael Duffy - being replaced in three of the last four games by Dane Jarvis who hasn't let the side down.

There may be a reason why the coaching team are tinkering with the back four, for they know more about the physical demands on the players and their fitness given the heavy schedule - another seven games in May, following seven in April - but most successful teams are build on a solid defensive unit in which the players know each other well.

The two goals conceded against Derry illustrated the uncertainty that has been evident in some of Dundalk's recent defensive displays, they appear to be a little vulnerable in dealing with the high ball and on Friday night Derry's only threat was from excellent deliveries from frees and corners by Barry McNamee, and long throws which caused panic in the defence.

From one such throw the ball was cleared to the edge of the box and uncharacteristically Michael Duffy was caught napping, allowing central defender Ciaran Coll a free strike on goal to bring the score to 2-1. Then Sean Hoare lost his composure late in the game, conceded a needless free kick, from which the penalty and equalising goal was conceded.

The awarding of the penalty was highly controversial, for it is unclear whether it was for handball or pushing by Hoban who, having been booked earlier for dissent, was shown a second yellow, thus missing the Bohs match.

Initially home supporters felt that the referee was signalling a free out, for two Dundalk players appeared to be floored in the contest for the ball.

The penalty incident apart, Dundalk were far from happy at the performance of referee Rob Hennessy, who struggled to control the game, failed to punish Derry's delaying tactics and didn't stamp down early enough on the over-zealous and physical approach of the Derry players, with Patrick McEleney, Michael Duffy and Patrick Hoban not getting the protection they deserved from the officials.

Hoban was Dundalk's main threat, the confidence flowed through the team after his two goals and there could have been two further goals, only for the agility of Cherry who kept out efforts from Kelly, Hoban and Duffy.

The loss of Hoban for Friday night could be crucial, and it will be hoped that the first full week's rest for the players in a month will allow some of the injured players to get back, and for the team to get their focus back after a frustrating night against Derry.

The Argus