Dundalk 3 Derry City 2
THERE were a few nervous moments for the home supporters before the full-time whistle.
And, in truth, the celebrations at Oriel Park were initially quite muted. That soon changed.
Dundalk’s league title-winning party kicked off in Cork last Friday, and this was the victory that removed any lingering suspense. It was only a sloppy finish that added some intrigue to a game that represented the latest leg of the slow coronation.
The teams had emerged from the dressing room to the sound of the music from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. And Stephen Kenny’s side did not deviate from the script by delivering the result which secures a fourth title in five years.
Derry’s casual approach looked like giving them even more comfort in the goal difference department until a tardy second-half showing added unnecessary drama for the natives with Derry scoring twice in the final quarter.
They will not be officially declared as champions until Friday week, but a 12-point lead with four games to go – and a 25-goal advantage in the differential – is a lead that justified the celebrations.
Kenny does not want that mood to seep into the dressing room as they face an FAI Cup semi-final with UCD on Friday; and he made some alterations to the side that prevailed in Cork.
The double is the priority now, so there will be no celebrations until that game is out of the way.
There was champagne football instead, although Derry were willing facilitators. Kenny Shiels’ side threatened to upset the mood in an early flurry of activity in the Dundalk goalmouth with Gary Rogers redeeming himself after an early fumble by saving from Aaron Splaine. The let-off galvanised Dundalk although they were helped back to life by a daft foul from Aaron McEneff that resulted in a Michael Duffy free and a crisp Daniel Cleary header to break the deadlock.
Dundalk showcased the quality that has brought them to the summit and across the 100-goal mark for the campaign. Derry showed why the goals against tally in the league has crossed 60.
Of course, the added frustration for the Candystripes faithful is that the outstanding Derry-born players in the league at the moment play for Dundalk. The Lilywhites’ second strike brought home that point with a fine run and pass from Duffy teeing up Patrick McEleney who finished with aplomb.
Number three was all about Hoban, with the disjointed Derry defence sitting deep as he found the space behind the midfield and curled the ball beyond Ger Doherty for his 25th goal of an exceptional season.
That levelled the Premier Division record for goals in a season with Glen Crowe, Jason Byrne and ex-Dundalk favourite Richie Towell all hitting that tally since the two-tier system was introduced in 1985. Hoban is on a mission to set a new target and become the first player to hit 30 since Waterford’s Jimmy Gauld in 1955.
He was on a doomed mission to get there after the restart with one header ruled out for offside before the busy Doherty produced a stunning stop to keep out another.
The under-pressure Shiels hooked McEneff and Ally Roy at the interval to make a point, but it would be hard to read much into their improvement with a Dean Jarvis own goal and a goal from sub Ben Fisk putting more respectability on the scoreline. However, Kevin McHattie was red-carded at the death for a cynical professional foul.
This was Dundalk’s night.
Dundalk – Rogers, Gannon, Cleary, Hoare, Jarvis; Shields, McEleney (Murray 62); Mountney (Connolly 62), McGrath, Duffy; Hoban (Kelly 86)
Derry city – Doherty, McDonagh, Toal, Cole, McHattie; McEneff (Shiels 45), Splaine; Delap (Fisk 85), Rory Hale, Roy (Low 45); Ronan Hale
ref – P McLaughlin (Donegal)