Cork City 1 Dundalk 2
By Liam Mackey
And so the league champions are now also the cup holders, Dundalk confirming another changing of the guard in Irish football by doing what Cork City had done one year before: the precious double.
In a full-blooded and entertaining final played out before a crowd of 30,412 at the Aviva, a Sean Hoare header had given Dundalk the lead only for Kieran Sadlier to almost immediately equalise for City from the penalty spot.
But, ultimately, it was that rare thing – a headed goal from Patrick McEleney – which proved decisive in separating the great rivals and, at the end of 95 minutes, it was Stephen Kenny and his players who were lifting the silverware and celebrating in front of their adoring fans.
Having suffered an injury setback in training, Steven Beattie was a notable absentee for Cork City – Conor McCarthy slotting in at right-back - but the bigger pre-match talking point was John Caulfield’s decision to start with leading scorer Graham Cummins on the bench, the task of providing the spearhead of the City attack falling instead to Karl Sheppard.
Meanwhile, after initial concerns about his fitness following a knock he sustained in the Dundalk’s final league match against Bohemians, the league’s top marksman Pat Hoban was a familiar presence in the number 9 shirt for the Lilywhites as the game kicked off.
In unusually mild and calm conditions for Irish football’s annual November showpiece, there was a nice, brisk tempo to the opening exchanges and then something rather wilder when, in a sign of things to come, Chris Shields clattered Garry Buckley, leaving the Cork man in a heap in the middle of centre-circle before being able to resume after receiving treatment to his left shoulder.
However, City shipped a much more painful blow in the 19th minute when Sean Hoare all too comfortably rose above Sean McLoughlin and Mark McNulty to head home a Michael Duffy corner and give Dundalk the lead. But the fans from Louth barely had time to complete their celebrations before their hero was promptly turning villain, Hoare’s clumsy challenge in the box bringing down Karl Sheppard. Referee Neil Doyle had no hesitation in pointing to the sport and, just two minutes after Dundalk had opened the scoring, up stepped Kieran Sadlier to convert the penalty and, in bringing City level, became one of an select group of players in League of Ireland history to score in every round of the cup.
A final which, much more recent history had suggested, would be a tight affair, had exploded into life and there was no let up in the drama as the 23rd minute saw Shane Griffin perfectly positioned at the far post to head a Brian Gartland header off the line as, uncharacteristically, the City defence once again struggled to cope with a Duffy corner.
At the other end, Buckley, who was having a fine game, tested Gary Rogers with a terrific shot on the half volley after excellent work on the left flank by Sadlier, as the first half continued to offer up plenty of thrills as well as spills, referee Doyle perhaps doing well to keep the yellow card count to just one on each side before the break.
In a game in which set-pieces had been dominant, Sheppard had a chance soon after the resumption from a Sadlier corner but couldn’t keep his close-range header on target.
Then, in the 58th minute, after Duffy turned inside before crossing, Robbie Benson most certainly did get his header on target but Mark McNulty parried and Sean McLoughlin was on hand to clear the danger before a white shirt could profit on the rebound.
With the clock ticking on and the game becoming more open and a little ragged at times, Dundalk were beginning to shade it but, with the both sides giving their all, the physical toll of the contest was evident again when Gearoid Morrissey was forced to make way for Barry McNamee in the 67th minute.
But, six minutes later, it was Dundalk substitute Jamie McGrath who had a significant say in the game’s decisive moment, John Mountney’s replacement picking Shane Griffin’s pocket after the City full-back tried to be too clever in a dangerous position, before spreading the ball wide for Sean Gannon. The full-back’s cross was superb — a cross of the season contender, even — and, though McNulty got a hand to Patrick McEleney’s powerful header, it wasn’t enough to prevent the ball from finding the net.
John Caulfield responded by sending the experienced Graham Cummins and then young Cian Murphy into the fray and, given City’s proven resilience in this fixture, no-one in the stadium was ruling out a second comeback on the day with still over 15 minutes to play.
But though the Rebels effectively ended the game with a four-man frontline, the closest they came to levelling it again was when a deflected Sadlier piledriver had to be tipped over his bar by Rogers.
And, for their part, Dundalk came close to making it three on the counter when, with most of the green shirts committed to attack, Duffy was able to race half the length of the pitch and into the Cork box only to find McNulty expertly narrowing the angle to give his side one final reprieve.
City continued to throw caution to the wind, as they had too, and a McNamee free kick from the right in the last minute of five minutes of time added on, with goalkeeper Mark McNulty now up in the box, caused a final spasm of alarm in the Dundalk defence before the ball was cleared and the blast of the referee’s final whistle signalled that, for the first time in four years, extra time would not be required in the FAI Cup final.
Far more significantly, for the second time in four years, it meant that Stephen Kenny’s all conquering Dundalk had done the double. And deservedly so.
CORK CITY: McNulty, McCarthy, McLoughlin, Bennett, Griffin, Morrissey (McNamee 67), McCormack (Murphy 84), Keohane (Cummins 74), Buckley, Sadlier, Sheppard
DUNDALK Rogers, Gannon (Cleary 85), Gartland, Hoare, Massey, Shields, Benson (Jarvis 89), Mountney (McGrath 57), McEleney, Duffy, Hoban.
Referee: Neil Doyle.