When Dundalk lost their captain, Patrick Hoban, and vice-captain, Andy Boyle, their two most experienced players – Hoban with injury after just 12 minutes and Boyle sent-off after 54 minutes – their chances of securing their first win of the season in Dublin against Bohemians on Friday night looked about as remote as finding a cloud in the sky on a glorious night at Dalymount Park.
Before Friday, the captain and vice-captain had made a combined 341 appearances with the club and had a total of 529 games at senior level with various clubs in Ireland, England, Scotland.
In addition, the loss of Hoban's goal threat so early in the game was also crucial, for, before Friday, he scored 107 goals in his two spells at Dundalk, and has a career total of 182 goals.
Boyle's departure, which not only left the team with 10 relatively inexperienced players, but between them those players had less first-team experience with Dundalk than either Hoban or Boyle, with four, Robbie McCourt – who was called into the team for his debut when he replaced Boyle – Alfie Lewis – making his full debut – Ryan O'Kane and John Martin – who had started less than a handful of games between them.
Of those, Darragh Leahy and Greg Sloggett had played 163 times with the club (Leahy 72 and Sloggett 91) and, thus, accounted for almost 60pc of the combined total of the 268 first-team game experience within the side.
That lack of experience was reflected not just in the number of appearances, but in the ages of five of the players who would be regarded as learning their trade: Nathan Sheppard (21), Lewis Macari (20), Lewis (21), Steven Bradley (20) and O'Kane who will celebrate his 19th birthday later this month.
It is, therefore, a tribute to the players that they got this vital win in the face of such adversity, and this result, combined with the manner in which the team secured a last minute draw against Derry City the previous week, speaks volumes for the character of the players, and the spirit within the squad.
It is also a tribute to head coach Stephen O'Donnell who has fostered this sense of belief and confidence in the players for, in addition to the loss of such inspirational leaders as Hoban and Boyle, the handicap of having to play with a man less on such a sweltering night placed an extra toll on the players, a number of whom not surprisingly cramped up before the finish.
The reward of the three points was vital in maintaining Dundalk's title challenge and achieving their season's priority of securing European qualification for next season, but O'Donnell and his coaching team will be equally pleased by the performance of all the players, especially new arrivals, Lewis and McCourt and his young, talented players – Bradley, Macari, O'Kane, Sheppard, who struggled throughout the second half with cramp, and another of the young brigade, Joe Adams (21), who was having a big influence on the game until he had to be withdrawn to allow McCourt to be brought into the defence when Boyle departed.
There was satisfaction too for O'Donnell in that the two players introduced for Hoban and Boyle made the best of their opportunity as did O'Kane when he replaced the injured Daniel Kelly against Derry the previous week, all of which underlined the confidence that the head coach has in the fringe players that they can come into a game and be comfortable with the system.
Hoban was replaced by John Martin when most expected that David McMillan would get the nod, but the former Waterford attacker, whose gametime has been limited since arriving at Oriel Park, showed great determination to show his worth, not just for the part he placed in forcing the error from the Bohs ’keeper Tadhg Ryan in the concession of the game's only goal, but in the amount of work he undertook, on and off the ball, even falling back as an extra defender in the dying minutes to protect the lead.
McCourt, too, had an equally difficult task in replacing Boyle, but he quickly settled into his role alongside Sam Bone at the centre of defence, making light of the need to get to know each other's play in the heat of a battle when they were confronted with a full-blooded Bohs siege as the home side strained every sinew in search of an equaliser.
That Dundalk held out in the face of such a bombardment was testament to the discipline they showed in holding a dangerous high line, and the application they brought to contesting every high ball with vigour. while relying on every player to make his contribution in closing down the space on the flanks.
In the early part of the game when the teams were at full strength, the home side, making their first appearance at the venue in weeks, and with seven of their newly-recruited, nine players in the team, looked the more threatening as they found space, especially along the right flank, creating an overload on a few occasions that caused concern in the Dundalk defence.
However, just as Dundalk started to feel themselves into the game. they suffered their first blow when Hoban hit the deck after a tackle from behind, and the leading scorer failed to respond to lengthy treatment, necessitating his replacement by Martin.
The loss of Hoban seemed to unsettle both teams for Bohs now had to deal with a different threat in Martin who was better equipped to chase down the channels and harry defenders trying to play the ball out from the back.
He almost gave his side the lead when O'Kane caused the initial confusion in the home defence when his pace and control created the space and opportunity for a Martin shot that, luckily for the Bohs ’keeper, was straight at him, allowing him to save with his feet.
Then it was Martin, again, in the minutes before the break who rattled Ryan sufficiently when contesting a long, hopeful ball from Darragh Leahy causing the custodian to flap at the ball and, in the process, helping it into his own net.
Naturally, there were protests from the Bohs players and referee, Mr Reale, had to endure the hostility of the partisan home crowd who felt that the ’keeper was fouled, but the referee in sticking by his decision to award the goal, obviously felt that Martin hadn't impeded Ryan.
It was a brave decision and while it was the right decision, if Dundalk had conceded in such controversial circumstances at Oriel Park, the referee would have had to endure an equally irate reception from supporters.
Buoyed by the goal, and the energy that Martin was giving Dundalk in leading the line, O'Donnell's men started the second half in confident mood and could have increased the lead when Adams, who was becoming more prominent in every attack, should have done better when he curled a good chance wide, and O'Kane, who was getting the better of his opponent, cut inside for a shot that Ryan did well to hold.
But just as it looked as if Dundalk would control the game, they were caught flat footed in the 52nd minute with a ball over the top that found Boyle too close to Erhan Varian who, admittedly, took the Dundalk defender out of the equation with a very neat piece of control that freed him for a unrestricted run on goal.
Boyle had little alternative but to clip the Bohs attacker, and in doing so he took one for the team, for he knew that the red card was inevitable, but at least he had the good sense to commit the foul just outside the box.
The dismissal, coming with 38 minutes of normal time remaining, looked to have tipped the balance Bohs’ way, and with the large home crowd becoming ever more vocal, but at the same time piling pressure on their players to get the ball forward quicker, Dundalk remained steadfast, relying on their discipline and togetherness to stem the tide.
Naturally, they had a few hairy moments, one when Jonathan Afolabi hit the post and, on another occasion, when it was all hands to the pumps in a hectic goalmouth scramble in which the Dundalk players somehow managed to keep the ball out of the net.
Understandably, Bohs will be very disappointed that they didn't get even a draw against a depleted Dundalk team, but they never convinced that they had the ammunition to win the contest, for apart from the opening spell, they struggled to find any real rhythm, no doubt because of so many new players in the team.
For Dundalk, it was a great three points, but achieved at considerable cost in terms of Boyle's inevitable suspension, Hoban's injury and the toll that the magnificent performance will take out of the players. In addition, they had to field without Daniel Kelly, who faces a lengthy spell on the sidelines, and Paul Doyle.
With Shamrock Rovers up next on Sunday in Tallaght, it will take all of this week on the training pitch and treatment room to get a starting XI that can test the champions, who may themselves face another testing European encounter away in Hungary to Ferencvaros in the UEFA Europa League.
Unlike Dundalk, the champions have a larger squad of players to be able to cope with the twin demands of the LOI and Europe, for with Boyle suspended and at least three key players injured, Stephen O'Donnell will be struggling with no cover for central defence, and limited options in attack.
The prize for Dundalk is that if they can secure a win, they will cut the deficit at the top to a single point, and although Rovers will have a game in-hand, their upcoming European schedule, that will last into November, will place an extra burden on their resources, opening the gate a little for Dundalk and Derry.