Hoban punishes McNulty as Dundalk land early blow
Dundalk 1 Cork City 0
A promo poster doing the rounds in Dundalk ahead of last night’s game was emblazoned with the words ‘Taking Back The Throne’ and, on the evidence of this performance, Stephen Kenny’s side are fully intent on reclaiming the league title.
In the end, Patrick Hoban’s fourth-minute goal – after a howler by Mark McNulty – was enough to secure the Lilywhites a victory over their bitter rivals for the first time since October 2016 but, in truth, it could – and should – have been four or five, such was the intensity of the home side’s play.
The result cuts the gap between the sides to just a solitary point. John Caulfield’s side still lead the way after beginning the season with three straight wins but Kenny’s side look like they are motoring now with nine goals scored and none conceded.
This fixture has become the highlight of the SSE Airtricity League calendar – and one that certainly wouldn’t look out of place on Sky Sports’ ‘Rivalry Weekend’ schedule.
However, there were more than a few raised eyebrows when the team-sheets landed before the game.
Caulfield predicted that Dundalk would recall Stephen O’Donnell and Brian Gartland but they didn’t even make Stephen Kenny’s match-day squad.
SWAI Player of the Month nominee Dan Cleary partnered Sean Hoare at the back, bringing an end to Stephen Folan’s run of 38 consecutive league starts while Hoban, who never ended up on the losing side against Cork in his first spell at Dundalk, led the line.
Caulfield also sprung a major surprise by leaving Barry McNamee – a scorer in Cork’s recent President’s Cup win at the border venue – on the bench with Garry Buckley getting the nod in midfield.
Elsewhere, the champions made the journey north without the influential Alan Bennett, an injury opening the door for 19-year-old Conor McCarthy who made his first start of the season.
Things began at a blistering speed with Dundalk exploding from the blocks. Hoban won two free-kicks in the opening three minutes, the second of which, after a tangle with Conor McCormack, led to the opener.
McNulty, who has been something of a pantomime villain for Dundalk supporters over the past couple of years, suddenly became the toast of Oriel Park by inexplicably letting Ronan Murray’s free-kick squirm from his grasp and Hoban was there to gobble up the gift.
With the home support bouncing, the veteran goalkeeper suddenly looked uncomfortable in his surroundings and he almost let another Murray drive escape his clutches shortly afterwards.
The champions looked rattled and that sense of panic spread like wildfire with McCormack going into the book.
The City skipper then became embroiled in a war of words with Buckley, who was also cautioned by referee Paul McLaughlin. The Greenore man has picked up three red cards against Dundalk during his career and Caulfield moved quickly to stop him racking up a fourth, hooking the midfielder with just 20 minutes played.
At that stage, Dundalk were hunting a second goal with McNulty making an excellent save to divert a deflected Dane Massey effort around his post.
The back-peddling Shane Griffin then scooped Murray’s goal-bound drive over his own bar after a rapid break from back to front involving the eye-catching Michael Duffy.
Cork eventually cleared their heads and McNamee, McCormack’s replacement, almost restored parity against the run of play in the 33rd minute.
After breaking the lines, the former Derry City man headed for goal but Gary Rogers advanced to narrow the angle and Cleary showed good positioning to bat Kieran Sadlier’s follow-up over the top. That passage of play came just seconds after Duffy cut in from the left to curl a delicious attempt just wide at the other end.
The natives started the second half in similar fashion with Duffy and Murray sending missiles at the target in the opening 10 minutes before Hoban dragged a right-footer agonisingly wide with Cork all over the place at the back.
The champions continued to teeter on the brink and it looked like Kenny’s side would eventually put it to bed when Benson was upended in the box by Barry but McNulty – like he did to win last November’s FAI Cup final – made a fine stop to turn the spot-kick around the post.
With Kieran Sadlier and Graham Cummins struggling to make an impression, Cork never raised a gallop, but the significance of the win was highlighted by the reaction of the Dundalk players at full-time. This was a big statement.
DUNDALK – Rogers; Gannon, Hoare, Cleary, Massey; Benson, Shields; Duffy, Murray (Chvedukas 78), McGrath (Jarvis 90); Hoban (Tagbajumi 89).
CORK CITY – McNulty; Beattie, Barry, McCarthy, Griffin; McCormack (McNamee 21), Morrissey; Sheppard, Buckley (Keohane 77), Sadlier; Cummins.
REF – Paul McLaughlin.