Wednesday 12 December 2018

Super support helps players over the line

Kevin Mulligan

More supporters than ever before answered the rallying cry "C'mon The Town" to help Dundalk get over the line in Friday night's epic top of the table clash with Cork City in the SSE Airtricity Premier League at Oriel Park.

The combination of the crowd - the biggest seen at the venue for some time - (officially declared at 4,117) and the valiant efforts of the players proved to be the winning blend for when Cork equalised in the 62nd minute, the Dundalk players somehow drew on renewed reserves of energy in the sweltering heat driven on by the increased volume of support they were getting from the terraces to press home their advantage over a tiring Cork with their injury time winner.

The roar that greeted that winner, courtesy of an own goal from defender, Sean McLoughlin could be heard by the few lingering on Blackrock beaches and matched the volume of another never to be forgotten day at the venue during the late Eamon Hiney's tenure as Chairman when the 'Oriel roar' was born to greet a late winner in a 3-2 triumph over Derry City.

Somehow decrepit Oriel Park looked splendid in the magnificent June sun, supporters willingly discarding their precautionary rain jackets to reveal a fine array of club colours, underlining again the firm belief that sales of the club's merchandise has outstripped the combined sales of all English Premier League shirts since Stephen Kenny arrival reawakened belief in the club.

No wonder fans wanted to soak up the elation of that late, late winner late into the balmy evening and mull over the consequences of the result in the final destination of the title, and many did so in the beer gardens of pubs in the vicinity, while others escaped the stifling heat of the club bars to enjoy their al fresco style celebrations in the cooling breeze of the main stand where they watched the happy players willingly pose for selfies and readily embrace every microphone to convey their delight.

All, players, management team, and supporters deserved their day in the sun for it was, as one fan reflected afterwards, a 'real dual in the sun', where the commitment of both teams was evident in the ferocity of the tackling, and the denial of space, especially in midfield.

For that reason it was never a classic, in terms of the quality of the football, nor was it ever likely to be as all recent battles between the two best teams in the country have been tense, tough close affairs.

There were however passages of excellent football, such as the combinations that opened up the resolute Cork defence for Dundalk's two goals, and in stages early on in the game and when they had to chase a result after Dundalk's 46th opener, Cork showed a lot more ambition in terms of their passing and ball retention than many anticipated.

Because of the frequency of their games, and their knowledge of each others players and combinations, managers, Stephen Kenny and John Caulfield must find it difficult to devise tactics or team selections to give them the edge, and with many, perhaps including Caulfield, expecting Dundalk to field the same eleven that extended their winning run to eight games in Derry two weeks previously, Stephen Kenny sprung a surprise by moving Sean Hoare to central defence, recalling Sean Gannon to right-back and introducing Krisztian Adjoran's to his midfield at the expense of winger, Dylan Connolly.

Few anticipated this selection, and Daniel Cleary who was left out of central defence to make way for Hoare's move, had a fine game on his previous outing in Derry, while Connolly is starting to find his best form since joining from Bray.

Without testing Stephen Kenny's thinking one can only conclude that the Sean Gartland-Hoare combination in central defence gives the team greater balance on the left and a more robust challenge to Cork aerial threat, while Adjoran's neat ball playing skills and passing were needed to unlock the Leesiders.

The result vindicates the manager's selection, for he will argue that every match, especially those against Cork, presents different challenges, and consequently different players and combinations are needed.

It may seem harsh on Cleary and Connolly, but a takes a strong, united squad to win a League title, and initially some questioned Adjoran's inclusion to cope with the heavy lifting in midfield, especially when Cork were prominent in the early exchanges with Jimmy Keohane taking up some good positions.

In addition to making his presence felt in the combative midfield arena, Adjorjan had to escape the clutches of Cork's delegated man marker, Conor McCormack who relishes these battles against his home town club.

For much of the first half the Hungarian play-maker was struggling to impose himself, but within a minute of the start of the second half he showed the true value of his inclusion when he escaped McCormack's grip to move onto a beautifully weighed pass from Michael Duffy inside the full-back and guide the ball into the narrow space at the far post that goalkeeper, Mark McNulty allowed for a really magnificent goal.

It was a goal worthy of the occasion, and in many ways it was a pity that it, and Dundalk's winner, - again created by a fine Chris Shields pass to release Ronan Murray for a cross that Pat Hoban missed but did enough to force the own goal - didn't merit the TV exposure they deserved because the setting sun over the Carrick Road end of the ground made it difficult for the RTE crew to record the clearest of pictures.

That TV coverage, somewhat influenced in Cork's favour in presentation and flavour, would be worthwhile bedtime viewing for the Leesiders manager, for as usual he protested almost every decision to the extent that the officials lost patience with him - not for the first time- and he was sent to the stands after Dundalk's winner.

If the Cork manager does take time to view that screening he will see that there were two blatant fouls on Pat Hoban and Chris Shields that were not given at critical stages of the game, while his full-back, Griffin was lucky to stay on the field after two bookable fouls on Connolly.

Naturally in such a tense battle between the two teams supporters often view the referee's decisions with blinkered vision, and it will be the same when they meet again in Cork in September.

Hopefully for that fixture a stronger and more experienced officials than Rob Harvey and his two assistants will be appointed for both Dundalk or Cork were mystified at some of the decisions on tackling.

The relief that was released with this win carried over the week-end and embellished the beautiful weather, and the test for Dundalk is to sustain that effort in their 12 remaining games. They won't need reminding that after beating Cork at Oriel Park in March to stop the Leesiders going seven points clear at the top, the players were unable to lift themselves in the next game three days later against St. Patrick's.

The Dubliners are again the opposition in Richmond Park on Friday night, and having battled hard and long to regain leadership of the League, Dundalk can't afford to relax.

The Pats match is the last before the European adventure starts, and in their remaining eleven games, Dundalk play Sligo Rovers (a), Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers (both at home), Bray and Limerick (both away), Derry (h), Cork (a), Pats (h), Waterford (a), Sligo in their final home match and their last game is away to Bohemians.

It is a tough schedule and hopefully their squad can be augmented for the European games and the run-in and sustained by the knowledge that they have the town behind them on their journey.

The Argus