Rovers show grit to earn a replay
Dundalk 1 Shamrock Rvrs 1
It was an afternoon that started with a fire on the pitch caused by a flare thrown from the away section.
But when the game kicked off, it looked as though Shamrock Rovers' hopes of ending their cup drought were about to go up in flames.
After nine minutes they were behind and on the ropes at Oriel Park.
"They were very good and we were very poor," admitted Rovers boss Stephen Bradley.
However, his team showed guts to regroup at the break and set up an FAI Cup semi replay in Tallaght when Brandon Miele struck with 15 minutes to go.
The subsequent sending off of David McAllister for an extremely poor challenge shifted pressure to the other end, but the Hoops hung in there to grab a deserved result that provided further evidence of improvement under their young manager.
"If that was us last year, they could have beat us 4-0 or 5-0 you know," said Miele, speaking about the response to an early concession. "But the character in this team now shows that we can come back, that we're all together and we'll fight for each other."
The decider is pencilled in for Tuesday week due to Irish U-21 commitments at Rovers' home this week and, while one of the arguments against the switch to a 10-team league is too much repetition, it should be easy to build a buzz around the sixth meeting between these sides in 2017.
When there's a healthy rivalry and two talented sets of players involved, it's an easier sell than a turkey shoot against an inferior opponent.
In saying that, this was far from a vintage affair, with the strong wind a factor - both sides fared better when they were playing into it as it encouraged them to keep the ball down.
The cleaner surface in Tallaght will lend itself to a better game too, and the coffers of both clubs should be boosted by the split gate, although Dundalk officials were last night estimating that the cost of repairing burns on the pitch resulting from the pre-match flare could hit five figures.
Rovers will likely be punished, of course, but that money will add to the income that the FAI pick up from fines.
That, you could say, is the magic of the cup.
The away section were jubilant at full-time, applauding the Rovers players back onto the pitch for their warm-down. It was a scenario that appeared unlikely in the early minutes, with Dundalk bossing things.
They led courtesy of a team move that would rank favourably with anything they've produced during Stephen Kenny's trophy-laden tenure.
Unsurprisingly, skipper Stephen O'Donnell was at the heart of it, with Dundalk always enhanced by the presence of the injury-prone midfielder. He was involved three times in a passing move, with Sean Gannon and David McMillan also featuring, before O'Donnell's pass across the area was brilliantly dummied by Michael Duffy and converted by Robbie Benson.
It was dripping in class. The period that followed lacked it, with brief skirmishes in the stand in the aftermath of the celebrations switching attention away from the pitch.
If Rovers fans were frustrated at that juncture, they were given some encouragement as the interval approached, with midfield three Ronan Finn, McAllister and rookie Aaron Bolger belatedly beginning to impose themselves in the opposition half.
That said, a lot of the play before the interval revolved around Dundalk's right side, where the speedy Dylan Connolly was always posed a threat. Patrick McEleney drifted in and out of proceedings and provided a reminder of his ability with a 25-yarder that was acrobatically turned over by the bar by Tomer Chencinski.
"We never played in the first half," said Bradley. "We never passed the ball, we never played with energy and tempo. It wasn't us, we were slow and sloppy. We had a chat at half-time and everyone agreed we needed to raise our standards. We drove on, and played with energy and Ronan Finn typified that with the goal, with his burst down the right."
Finn had riled some of the natives with pre-match comments in these pages about the respective potential of the clubs, and his influence was clear in his assist for Miele, who vindicated the decision to shift him into a central role with a superb right-footed finish.
He had earlier forced O'Donnell into a clearance off the line following a shot that found its way past Gary Rogers.
The equaliser set up a grandstand finish, and McAllister's red mist gave Dundalk encouragement, even if it ultimately has ended the season of sub Chris Shields.
But they were disappointing in the second 45, with McEleney quiet, Duffy off key and McMillan subdued by the impressive Lee Grace and Roberto Lopes.
"We could have been three up at half-time," sighed Kenny. "But we did not play well in the second half, we kicked the ball away a bit with the wind."
Still, his team have fond memories of Tallaght, and have past experience of drawing a semi-final replay at home only to triumph in the replay. That was their route past Derry 12 months ago, albeit with Finn scoring the winner. He now stands in their path.
"We are going to have to roll up our sleeves and make sure we're ready," asserted Kenny. "We're going to have to do it the hard way now."
Dundalk - Rogers, Gannon, Gartland, Hoare, Vemmelund; O'Donnell, Benson; Connolly (Shields 70; McGrath 81), McEleney, Duffy; McMillan (Stewart 90)
Shamrock Rovers - Chencinski, Madden, Grace, Lopes, Byrne; Finn, McAllister; Clarke (Webster 90), Bolger (Doona 72), Miele (Connolly 81); Shaw
ref - N Doyle (Dublin)