Forrester's header swings title advantage to Saints
St Patrick's Ath 2 Dundalk 0
AFTER a year where their character and bottle has frequently been questioned, St Patrick's Athletic responded with a crucial victory born from an abundance of those qualities.
In doing so, they seized control of the League of Ireland title race, halting Dundalk's momentum on a fiery night by the Camac to take a three-point lead into the final five matches of a thrilling campaign.
This clash of the top two was poised beautifully at half-time, with little between the sides. It was Liam Buckley's men who rose to the subsequent challenge, striking twice as the savvy of experienced heads came to the fore and Dundalk lost their composure.
They could regret it at the season's end, with the late dismissal of skipper Stephen O'Donnell adding to their woes.
The Saints faithful were overjoyed, dedicating a chant to Stuart Byrne, who caused consternation with his early season observations on 'MNS' which revolved around his belief that Pat's lacked a winning mentality.
"We've got a good group of players here," said Pat's manager Buckley. "I could sense the determination in the dressing-room before the game that we weren't going to let this go."
The intense atmosphere around Richmond Park indicated this was no ordinary game and kick-off was delayed for eight minutes as the fans filtered in. It set the tone for a hectic first half with bundles of endeavour but very little room for flair.
Both teams have a reputation for playing decent football, but they mixed it up here, with Dundalk's Richie Towell chopped down twice in the first 90 seconds. Saints playmaker Killian Brennan, who passed a fitness test to figure, also came in for rough treatment.
Buckley's troops missed the presence of Greg Bolger in front of the back four, particularly with Towell capable of making well-timed runs from deep.
The flip side is that the trio of Brennan, Chris Forrester and John Russell were a little tidier in possession. Lone striker Anto Flood, given the nod ahead of Christy Fagan, was unable to find room, while Conan Byrne's first menacing dart inside was thwarted by a precisely timed Brian Gartland tackle.
The sum total was that the Saints' only real chance to test Peter Cherrie in the first half came from a series of free kicks, but Brennan was unable to trouble Dundalk's Scottish netminder.
A frustrated Stephen Kenny reshuffled his team before the break, with John Mountney moved wide and John Dillon sent into the engine room.
His team responded by creating a fine opportunity to break the deadlock when Patrick Hoban's flick released the inrushing Towell, who had a little more time to pick his spot.
The ex-Celtic man threatened in similar fashion after the resumption, culminating in a futile handball shout; he struggled to probe again.
Stephen Kenny raged on the sideline and his mood darkened as the Saints reacted by seizing the initiative in a move arising from a free which the Dundalk manager felt should never have been awarded. Right-back Ger O'Brien collected it and produced a clever turn followed by a deadly accurate cross that the unlikely figure of Forrester nodded past Cherrie.
They followed up with a second punch before the hour mark. With yellow shirts dozing from a routine throw, Flood's header found Byrne, who threaded an accurate pass that Daryl Kavanagh finished with stunning precision.
The attacker spent the first half at 2013 making a minimal impression at Cork; his man-of-the-match display here represents quite a turnaround. "A fantastic signing for us," enthused Buckley.
From there, Dundalk had no option but to throw caution to the wind, with Kenny utilising his bench and the Saints temporarily retreating as Hoban forced a save from Clarke before O'Donnell squandered a reasonable opportunity.
Sadly, the latter would fail to last the duration after Tom Connolly harshly brandished a red for a shove on Ger O'Brien. That was game over.
"We've got to keep our feet on the ground now," warned Buckley. "We've put ourselves in a good spot but it's nothing better than that. You can get a kick in the a*** if you're not careful but we're determined not to let it happen."
St Patrick's Athletic – Clarke, O'Brien, Kenna, Browne, Bermingham; Russell, Brennan, Forrester; Byrne (Gannon 68), Flood, Kavanagh (Kelly 77).
Dundalk – Cherrie, Rossiter, Boyle, Gartland, Massey; Towell; Dillon (Sullivan 65), Mountney (Faherty 63), O'Donnell, Byrne (Mulvenna 77); Hoban.
Ref– T Connolly (Dublin).