The result, a 1-1 draw between second and third in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division game, at Oriel Park on Friday night left both teams, and their respective coaching staffs, not knowing whether to laugh or cry at the outcome.
Dundalk were mightily relieved to have scored in injury-time to ensure that they got something out of the game, while at the same time they were entitled to feel disappointed that they didn’t collect all three points, for they played the better football, won the possession stats, but didn’t have the break of the ball at vital stages that could have been decisive.
Derry City, on the other hand, were annoyed that they didn’t hold out for their first victory of the season over Dundalk, for having defended resolutely for over 80 minutes, it was clear from the crestfallen reaction of the players at the final whistle that they felt that they had done enough to win.
Their supporters too, isolated in the away, Carrick Road section, registered their disappointment at conceding so late in the game by taking their frustration out on stewards and Gardai, leading to a brief flurry of ugly activity that, thankfully, was quickly quelled with a few arrests.
While the two teams had mixed views about the outcome, there can be no doubt about the reaction of champions Shamrock Rovers, for, had Derry won, they would have moved to within six points of the leaders with Stephen Bradley’s European travel-weary players due to visit the Brandywell in their next outing, scheduled for this weekend, while Dundalk, still entertaining outside hopes of the title, are visitors to Tallaght on Friday week.
Dundalk can also take satisfaction from preserving their cherished unbeaten home record, and, in the process, protected their two-point cushion in second place over Derry, and maintained a healthy, 10-point gap over St Patrick’s Athletic in the race for a lucrative European qualification spot.
Labelled beforehand as a clash between Dundalk present and past, because the Foylesiders now have so many former Oriel Park favourites in their ranks – the latest, Mark Connolly, joining in much debated circumstances the previous week – the game was understandably spiced with that extra edge which contributed to the enjoyment of the large attendance of over 3,800.
Dundalk started the brighter, combining well to create a few promising situations, but they were rocked by the concession of a preventable goal after 12 minutes, and a double injury blow, losing Paul Doyle and Daniel Kelly in the 23rd and 28th minutes, which disrupted their gameplan and stunted the flow to their game.
Only alert goalkeeping by Nathan Shepperd kept them in the contest until the break when they were able to regain their focus to dominate possession for much of the second half, managing to create space along both flanks for man of the match Steven Bradley and Ryan O’Kane, who relished the opportunity when he replaced Kelly, but the final ball never fell Dundalk’s ways while, on other occasions, they hadn’t sufficient presence in the box until that late, late stunning finish by Pat Hoban.
It was captain Patrick Hoban who led from the front with a superb performance, almost single-handedly dragging his team up the park by constantly showing for the ball, especially long deliveries from his ‘keeper, feeding the players in front of him with some subtle passes, acting as the first line of defence in preventing Derry playing out from the back, and then – goodness, where he got the energy from – getting on the end of Bradley’s magnificent cross to ghost in from behind Connolly to plant that point-saving header well out of the reach of Brian Maher.
Hoban’s leadership underlined the character and personality in this Dundalk team, for they retained their belief to enable them to overcome the twin setback of the early concession of the goal and the loss of Doyle and Kelly, which sustained them to produce some passages of quality football.
That goal was in many ways a self-inflicted wound, for after Greg Sloggett didn’t get his body in the right position to protect the ball, allowing him to be caught in possession by Joe Thompson and causing the covering defenders to panic, the midfielder fed top-scorer James Akintunde. He showed good composure to make the opening for himself, leaving in his wake Andy Boyle sitting on the floor before rolling the ball into the corner of the net with the help of a deflection to take it away from Sheppard’s despairing dive.
Naturally, the goal punctured Dundalk’s promising start and encouraged Derry to persist with their obvious gameplan of pressing high up the field to prevent Stephen O’Donnell’s preferred option of playing out from the back, and then countering with the long ball over the top for Akintunde to expose the lack of pace at the heart of the defence.
To counter this known weakness, O’Donnell devised a pre-match plan to allow Shepperd to station himself outside his penalty box, almost in the manner of the modern Gaelic goalkeepers, and although there were a few hairy moments when the Welshman couldn’t use his hands, he considerably enhanced his growing status with his alertness, judgement and bravery, particularly when he dived at the feet of Thompson who was freed beyond the home defence by a Patrick McEleney pass.
McEleney was one of four former Dundalk players in the Derry ranks. The others being Connolly, Cameron Dummigan – who needed all his experience to contain the pace, control and trickery of O’Kane – and Michael Duffy, who rightly got a good reception when introduced late in the game, though obviously still not himself after his early season leg break.
The four former Dundalk players and another, Will Patching, who missed out because of injury, represent only part of a major investment by the Candystripes in almost a completely new team with former Manchester City midfielder Sadou Diallo, their latest recruit, looking impressive in the early exchanges when he positioned himself to prevent Dundalk feeding Hoban’s feet.
Nonetheless, Derry never convinced that they can bridge the gap that Stephen Kenny predicted at the weekend is widening between Rovers and the rest, for they came with a gameplan that was very much one-dimensional, defending deep, relying heavily on the long ball to catch Dundalk on the break and irritating the crowd and the referee in trying to run down the clock from early in the second half for which, ultimately, they deservedly paid the price when Dundalk scored in lost time.
Throughout, it was Dundalk more than the expensively assembled Foylesiders who impressed with some quality football, with some neat passages of close control and incisive passing, particularly from Doyle, until his injury, the ever-improving Joe Adams, the supporting wing-backs, Darragh Leahy and Lewis Macari, and, of course, the wingers, Bradley and O’Kane.
Another who impressed was newcomer, Alfie Lewis, who had to be introduced sooner that all would have liked because of Doyle’s injury, but despite his lack of gametime and after only a few days training with his new teammates, he got stuck in, showing some excellent ball retention, and the ability to pick a pass.
Understandably, he ran out of steam in the second half, but the 22-year-old Londoner looks a real asset and the prospect of him playing alongside Doyle in the central roles is exciting.
The other player who had to come into the game earlier than expected was O’Kane, whose confidence soars with each appearance, and will be further boosted by getting the call before others on the bench in such a big game. Not long after his introduction, he was put through by another astute flick from Hoban for which he had to endure the pain of a crunching tackle and having used his pace to escape the chasing defenders, O’Kane brought a good save out of Maher, which, luckily, the ‘keeper was able to parry away.
Not long into the second half, Dundalk had another great chance to equalise when Sam Bone danced past a couple of despairing tackles that opened the chance of a shot, which he dragged just wide, and for much of the second half, it was Dundalk taking the game to the visitors with Bradley a constant threat when he worked the ball on to his left, while Hoban was an omnipresent threat despite the constant attention of Connolly.
On a number of occasions, the accuracy was missing from deliveries when good positions were worked on the flanks and Derry defended a succession of set-pieces well, getting the favourable break of the ball on the odd occasion.
Then, when it looked as if the visitors would hang on, came that wonderful Hoban goal that will live long in the memory, particularly for the manner in which he timed his run and had to use his considerable neck muscles to get the power and accuracy into his header.
It was no more than the players deserved.