Wednesday 23 January 2019

Was this the moment the title race tilted towards Dundalk?

Kevin Mulligan

Are there defining moments in a title-winning season ?

Most champions would say that there were such moments, such games, when they convinced themselves, and others, that this was their title winning season.

When Dundalk reflect on this 2018 season, and if they are awarded the SSE Airtricity Premier League title on October 25th, their final League game, they may well view last Friday, August 31st, as the day in which their defining moments came in the campaign.

Those special moments to be consigned to the memory bank could indeed be narrowed down to the 72nd minute of the encounter between Cory City and Sligo Rovers at Turner's Cross, and just as significant, the 85th minute of Dundalk's game against Limerick in the Markets Field.

In that 72nd minute in Turner's Cross, Sligo Rovers equalised a first half Cork goal, and the importance of that goal quickly filtered through their mobile phones to the few hundred Dundalk supporters gathered in the Markets Field stand behind the goal their team was attacking.

The ripple of their delight was clearly caught by the Dundalk players who were inspired to intensify their efforts to break down a stubborn and a spirited home team in search of a goal that would stretch their lead at the top of the table.

They were eventually rewarded with yet another magnificent strike in that 85th minute from Michael Duffy - what would Dundalk do without him - that helped secure all three points. Within a few minutes more, Dundalk fans were chanting 'we're going to win the League' as Sligo's record appearance player, Raffaele Cretaro denied Cork even a point when he struck a shock winner for the Westerners.

It took a few minutes for the final whistle to sound in both Munster venues, and a few minutes more before the importance of both results began to sink in with Dundalk supporters for they suddenly realised that within the space of twenty minutes from looking at the grim prospect of their lead at the top of the table being whittled down to a single point, their favourites were now six points clear of Cork with six games remaining.

In honesty few, even the most ardent supporter, could have visualised that prospect for Cork had taken an 8th minute lead against Sligo and looked on course to extend their unbeaten home record stretching back to August 18th last year (when incidentally they were also beaten by Sligo) while Dundalk were struggling to even create chances against a stubborn, well drilled Limerick team, that also threatened when they counter attacked with purposeful passing, pace and movement.

It didn't help Dundalk's cause that Friday's game came at the end of a extremely demanding five game schedule within the space of 15 days, and following on the shattering disappointment of having conceded that injury time penalty winner to Shamrock Rovers three days previously in Oriel Park.

As they struggled to break down Limerick's spirited resistance, it was obvious that the players were feeling the effects of their demanding schedule for passes went stray with alarming regularity, forward players were not making the runs to find the gaps, and defenders had a few lapses in concentration that allowed too much space to their opponents when they countered.

Admittedly it wasn't easy for Limerick defended with all eleven players in their own half, but perhaps manager, Stephen Kenny should have freshened up the team, especially in midfield, where, Chris Shields apart, the team just ran out of legs and ideas.

Critically, and perhaps inexcusably because of his record with the club, the manager has been questioned by some about his selection for the Rovers game and his loyalty to certain players who have served him well, and in the light of the obvious disappointment at losing the Rovers match, it was understandable that such questions should be posed.

The fact is however that the options available to the manager, especially in the engine room of the team, the midfield area, have been curtailed by injuries to Stephen O'Donnell and Karolis Chvedukas, while others such as Patrick McEleney and John Mountney have not regained full fitness.

Undoubtedly the manager would have liked to rest Robbie Benson who is struggling for his best form under the weight of the team's demanding schedule, and the three weeks between Friday's game and their next League encounter with champions Cork on April 21st provides a welcome window to rest a few players and provide the opportunity for others to improve their fitness.

For Friday's game the manager made three chances from his starting line-up against Rovers, with Daniel Cleary replacing the suspended Sean Hoare, Dylan Connolly recalled to the wing with Jamie McGrath moving to replace McEleney, and surprisingly Dean Jarvis brought in to left-back in place of Dane Massey.

Hoare's controversial suspension came at the end of an often frayed encounter with Rovers, in which Dundalk were very unhappy with the performance of referee Rob Harvey not just in awarding a dubious penalty against Sean Gannon in injury time but also for his failure to award Pat Hoban a penalty for an obvious shove in the box, and for his failure to stamp out the gamesmanship displayed by the Dubliners throughout.

Before the game the fear was expressed that the referee would not be strong enough for such a tense battle, and this proved to be the case for he allowed Rovers players hamper the flow of the game by continually stopping quick frees to be taken, blocking off runners and failing to retreat the required distance when frees were being taken.

It was a game in which Dundalk didn't deserve to lose their cherished unbeaten home League record, for after a shaky first 15 minutes when they conceded a 2nd minute goal that can be attributed to their failure to deal with a well taken free, they dominated, and created some excellent chances which they failed to take.

Having secured an equaliser from yet another Michael Duffy goal, this time via a deflected shot, they should have at least gone on to secure a point, before some indecisive moments in defence created the situation from which Ronan Finn won the penalty.

It was only the team's third League defeat, and their first at home, and ended a winning League sequence 12 wins, stretching back to Waterford on April 4th. The disappointment was that the performance deserved at least a draw, and while results, more than performance are what counts at this stage of the campaign, it was nonetheless a blow to lose their proud record in the manner in which they did.

In that Rovers game, and again in Limerick and previously in Sligo, Michael Duffy was outstanding, his confidence and status continuing to soar with the result that he has gladly responded to a call from Martin O'Neill the Republic of Ireland manager to declare for the Republic instead of N. Ireland with whom he played at under-age level.

His enhanced status as an international player creates further problems for Dundalk in their desire to secure the Derry winger's services for coming seasons, and it will an acid test of the new owners commitment to the club if thy are prepared to make the player an offer that would match that he may get from abroad.

Of course the former Celtic player may want another crack at making the grade across channel, but he should weight up his options carefully for Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle had little game time with Preston North End after joining them in January, 2017 and are now in opposing teams in the Scottish Premiership, Horgan, with Hibernian for whom he scored last Saturday, and Boyle who joined bottom of the table Dundee last Friday on a loan period until January.

David McMillan too who joined St. Johnstone from Dundalk last January is also finding it difficult to gain playing time, although he scored his first goal of the season on Saturday, while Richie Towell, perhaps the most talented of the players to depart in recent seasons, is on his way back to Rotherham United for another loan spell from Brighton.

While the wages may be a little better in the Scottish Premiership, the 'gates' are not significantly higher than Dundalk are getting, for St. Johnstone played before a crowd of 1,700 on Saturday, and Dundee and Hibernian performed before crowds of just over 5,000.

The job for Dundalk and their new owners is to convince Michael Duffy that he can advance his career, even at international level, by staying at Oriel. It will be massive task, but one that will test the ambitions of all.

The Argus