Late penalty drama at Oriel as Watts winner halts Dundalk's title momentum
Dundalk 1 Shamrock Rvs 2
On a feisty night in Oriel Park, a dramatic late twist threatened Dundalk's control of the race for the league title.
Referee Rob Harvey was at the centre of the action after he awarded an injury-time penalty to Hoops that was emphatically converted by Dylan Watts to give Stephen Bradley's side a much-needed victory.
By securing a positive result here, they brought an end to Dundalk's attempt to set an all-time League of Ireland record for successive wins.
The memory of the Bohemians side of 1923/'24 is preserved, but Bradley's charges desperately needed a positive result to get over their devastating defeat to their fierce Dublin rivals ten days previously.
For large periods of the second half, they were hanging onto a point as Dundalk went in search of a 14th win on the bounce - the Bohs record is 15. Victory was a spectacular bonus with former Oriel favourite Ronan Finn fouled by Seán Gannon after a poor touch by the Dundalk player.
After ferocious protests, Watts stepped up to dispatch clinically. Dundalk anger spilled over after the final whistle with Seán Hoare shown a red card by Harvey after a game in which the official had already produced ten yellow cards.
Dundalk's lead over Cork now stands at three points with seven games remaining, with a superior goal difference a major help.
But this was a chance to really drive home their advantage. From the second minute, they were playing catch-up. Finn drew a foul from Brian Gartland that gave the Hoops a free-kick that was sent into the area by Watts with Roberto Lopes rising highest to convert.
Dundalk were asleep and that was in keeping with a sloppy opening with the Hoops much the sharper in every aspect of the game.
The Oriel Park crowd grew anxious with a raft of uncharacteristic Dundalk errors and there was plenty of needle in a stop-start game.
Greg Bolger was influential for the visitors, especially when it came to shackling Patrick McEleney, but the pendulum swung in favour of the league leaders as the interval approached.
They began to threaten in open play without creating an outstanding opportunity and relied on set-piece situations to fashion openings with the interval giving the visitors the opportunity to regroup.
They didn't seize it, however, and Dundalk resumed on a mission. Within nine minutes they had levelled it up and, while it was a fair on the run of play, there was a huge element of luck involved.
Michael Duffy - buoyed by news of an imminent Irish call-up - had been relatively subdued in the first half with Rovers working hard to ensure that he wasn't left one on one with Ethan Boyle.
But they were caught out when Duffy roamed infield to pick up the ball and step away from Boyle before unleashing a shot that looped over Mannus with the aid of a wicked deflection off Lee Grace.
The struggles of the opening quarter were now a distant memory as Dundalk pressed on in search of victory with Chris Shields in control of midfield.
Full-back Gannon was pressed on and denied from close range by Seán Kavanagh following a flowing move. With sub Dylan Connolly bringing pace and Duffy always dangerous, Dundalk sent a number of crosses into the box and Robbie Benson headed narrowly wide with the best opportunity.
Bradley had emptied his bench in his attempt to stem the tide and the subs played their part in the smash and grab with Gary Shaw lively and a Brandon Kavanagh shot cleared off the line just before the spot-kick call that brought joy to Tallaght and Cork.
DUNDALK - Rogers, Gannon, Gartland, Hoare, Massey; Shields, Benson (Mountney 90); McGrath (Murray 77), McEleney (Connolly 56), Duffy; Hoban.
SHAMROCK ROVERS - Mannus, Boyle, Grace, Lopes, S. Kavanagh; Watts, G. Bolger, Miele (Greene 70), Finn, Coustrain (B Kavanagh 80): Carr (Shaw 80).
REF - R Harvey (Dublin)