Last-gasp Finn saves Hoops
Dundalk 2 Shamrock Rovers 2
Ronan Finn rescued a point for 10-man Shamrock Rovers with a 93rd-minute strike to cap the chaotic second half of this Good Friday thriller.
Trevor Croly's side looked to be heading for defeat when they lost their half-time lead and captain Conor Kenna in a crazy spell around Richie Towell's 56th-minute equaliser from the penalty spot.
Having put Dundalk ahead six minutes later, Darren Meenan wasted a glorious chance to put the result beyond doubt when he squandered a one-on-one in the dying stages.
That gave the Hoops enough time to launch one last attack and Finn capitalised by unlocking the Dundalk defence and emphatically slamming past Peter Cherrie to prompt wild celebrations among the travelling fans and knock the Louthmen off top spot.
With the pitch watered evenly and a one-goal lead to protect, it was all going swimmingly for Shamrock Rovers at the interval. One incident changed everything, though.
Referee Paul McLaughlin pointed to the spot when a Pat Hoban header struck the hand of Rovers' Shane Robinson in a crowded penalty box and Towell converted.
But the dramatic episode didn't end there as Kenna, still furious at the original decision, struck out at the celebrating Daryl Horgan in the aftermath as they wrestled over the ball.
McLaughlin produced the red card to give Dundalk an unexpected bonus and, roared on by a delirious crowd, the table-toppers pressed on to seize the lead courtesy of Meenan.
The substitute was on the pitch because of a nasty injury suffered by their captain Stephen O'Donnell, another disappointment for Kenny to reflect upon this weekend. He will undergo a scan this morning.
Rovers' trip here last Tuesday for a Setanta Cup semi-final defeat was dominated by a row over the watering of the unpopular artificial pitch – the sprinklers were visibly in full force this time around.
Croly used that fixture as a learning exercise and made six changes, sacrificing width in the midfield, with Robinson in front of the back four, Stephen McPhail on the left of a narrow set-up and Gary McCabe behind strikers Ciaran Kilduff and Eamon Zayed.
They went direct where necessary, particularly with an aerial options up top, but it was clever interplay that gave the Dubliners the lead inside 13 minutes when Finn, operating on the right, collected a McCabe pass and released Kilduff who breached the defensive line and expertly found the bottom corner with a right footer.
This gave the visitors something to build upon, yet they spent long periods on the defensive as the hosts responded, even if their runners from midfield didn't get the space that St Patrick's Athletic afforded them a fortnight ago.
O'Donnell did shoot over from an early burst, but they struggled to find gaps in the final third with Robinson combative and McPhail composed.
For all their spells in Rovers territory, characterised by right full Sean Gannon effectively operating as an auxiliary winger, it was a set-piece that forged the best opening with Andy Boyle stabbing at Barry Murphy from close range.
The loss of O'Donnell to a serious knee injury following a hard but fair challenge from Robinson capped a frustrating half for the pre-match table toppers.
In keeping with recent displays, they resumed with purpose and a driving run from John Mountney forced the corner that led to Towell restoring parity and Kenna departing.
Suddenly, Dundalk had plenty of space to play with and the lead goal was forged by smart running from Horgan and a clever assist for Meenan who smartly slotted the ball underneath the body of Murphy.
Horgan might have added a third as the Lilywhites threatened to run riot, yet Rovers – who had experience of coping with a man less after the controversial Luke Byrne incident in Inchicore last week – regrouped and McPhail almost caught out Cherrie with a 40-yarder that dipped just over the crossbar.
Then, a cross from Finn to the back post found Kilduff who failed to get enough power on his free header.
Croly rang the changes in search of a point, but they were always going to run the risk of further pain and Meenan should have secured the three points when he might have squared to Dave McMillan before missing the target.
That left the 3,300 strong crowd on their feet for a tense conclusion, with Finn seizing on Dundalk hesitancy to deliver his magic moment.
Dundalk – Cherrie, Gannon, Boyle, Gartland, Massey; Higgins, O'Donnell (Meenan 45); Mountney, Towell, Horgan (Shields 82); Hoban (McMillan 84).
Shamrock Rovers – Murphy, Madden, Kenna, McGuinness, Heaney; Robinson; Finn, McCabe (Waters 66), McPhail (Bayly 68); Kilduff, Zayed (Cornwall 59)
Referee – P McLaughlin (Monaghan).