John Caulfield sent to stands as Dundalk take massive step towards title with win in Cork
Cork City 0 Dundalk 1
ON the night that a power cut affected a good portion of the city, the lights went out on Cork's title defence. It will take a while for the darkness to lift.
Like all four meetings between the fierce rivals this term, it was decided by a one-goal margin.
But that did not do justice to Dundalk's superiority here. Cork City failed to land a blow on their guests as they spent the second half vainly going in search of an equaliser.
They were missing the sideline presence of John Caulfield who was sent to the stands after a half-time altercation in the tunnel.
It capped the worst month of his tenure as Cork City boss.
Dundalk's fans were in full voice after a stress-free conclusion. This was the start of the victory tour for Stephen Kenny's side, and they celebrated accordingly after the final whistle.
If they win at home to Derry City on Tuesday, they will be 12 points clear with four games remaining. As it stands, Cork's goal difference is inferior by a margin of 24. It's game over, and both camps knew it at full-time here.
In truth, that sentiment hung in the air before the match with back-to-back defeats for Cork draining local anticipation levels and reducing the attendance to 4,310 when this match generally pushes close to the 7,000 capacity.
Turner's Cross tends to hum before games like this, but that feeling was absent before kick-off. Caulfield's pre-match interview referenced talk of unrest in the camp which has been a source of speculation on Leeside throughout the week.
The absence of Barry McNamee and Josh O'Hanlon was the main talking point with doubts hanging over their future at the club.
In the circumstances, there was pressure on Cork to shift the story away from their troubles. Caulfield had taken corrective action after last week's Dalymount Park nightmare by dropping centre-halves Damien Delaney and Aaron Barry and goalkeeper Peter Cherrie.
But they still found themselves behind within four minutes with Chris Shields skipping away from a static Cork midfield to engineer an elongated one-two with Patrick Hoban who turned away from Seán McLoughlin to tee up his team-mate whose right-footed shot found a way past Mark McNulty with the aid of a wicked deflection off Conor McCarthy.
Cork did have a penalty shout waved away in the immediate aftermath with Brian Gartland grabbing hold of Graham Cummins in the box, but referee Neil Doyle waved the appeals away. However, they were slow to warm to proceedings and risked the concession of a second when the busy Michael Duffy – watched by Ireland assistant Roy Keane – threatened with a curling attempt.
The frustrating aspect of the situation for the natives was that Cork competed well for a period once they recovered from their shaky start. When the midfield three of Conor McCormack, Gearóid Morrissey and Garry Buckley are at their best, they can cover a lot of ground and unsettle Dundalk's rhythm.
But those passages were fleeting. Dundalk remained slicker, but the Leesiders did manage to pressurise the visitors in a decent spell before the break with Steven Beattie and Morrissey both denied by good Dundalk blocks.
That said, the away rearguard generally succeeded in keeping green shirts at arm's length and efficiently defended crosses that were sent into the box.
The onus was on Cork to commit bodies and the interval situation was ideal for the away side.
Indeed, they nearly doubled their advantage just before the break when Duffy turned away from Beattie and scooped the ball into the area where Hoban just failed to get a proper connection on his deft cross.
But there would be more drama in the tunnel than in the half an hour after the restart with Caulfield's role in proceedings resulting in his dismissal.
His animated presence was absent from the sideline for the second half; instead he had to watch from the PA box. The only announcements coming from that direction was substitutions.
Cork made changes in search of a leveller and the extent of top scorer Graham Cummins' impact was highlighted by the fact that he was withdrawn with a quarter of the game remaining.
Dundalk were comfortably in control, without necessarily banging the door down in search of a second goal.
Brian Gartland headed over the bar from a corner and the excellent Hoban tried his luck with an acrobatic overhead kick but the match was bereft of the usual intensity.
Shields, the goalscorer, was mopping up everything in the centre of the park. Cork shuffled from side to side without any incision. Dundalk's control was summed up by the fact that Gartland was able to embark on a stroll through the heart of the City midfield.
As the last throw of the dice, Cork turned to the veteran Delaney as an emergency striker. The desperation summed up the performance. Caulfield faces a serious job to rally the troops ahead of next Sunday's FAI Cup tie with Bohemians, their only remaining avenue to salvage joy from a season that has veered off the rails.
CORK CITY – McNulty, Beattie, McCarthy, McLoughlin, Griffin; McCormack (Delaney 88), Morrissey; Keohane, Buckley, (Coughlan 61) Sadlier; Cummins (Daly-Butz 72).
DUNDALK – Rogers, Gannon, Gartland, Hoare, Massey; Shields, Benson (Jarvis 86); Mountney, McEleney (McGrath 75), Duffy; Hoban (Kelly 90).
REF – N Doyle (Dublin)