In a topsy-turvy match of contrasting styles, the visitors had taken an early lead only to have it overturned by two Pats goals in the second half. But when substitute Rob Lehane levelled for City in the 81st minute, John Caulfield’s men seemed to have earned a share of the spoils, only for Conan Byrne to nab his second of the night 10 minutes later to secure the three points for the defending champions.
After last week’s trouncing away to Dundalk, which brought their unbeaten league record to a shuddering half, this was set to be a test of character as much as quality for Cork City, the priority for the visitors to Inchicore to ensure the wheels at least stayed on this time. Among supporters who’d travelled up to Dublin for the game, the pre-match consensus had been that they’d happily settle for a stabilising point.
Pats suffered a blow in the opening minutes, after a robust Dan Murray challenge — which drew the wrath of the home support — forced striker Christy Fagan out of the game, ex-City man Daryl Kavanagh coming on as his replacement.
Pats weren’t knocked out of their smooth-passing stride, however, quickly establishing a characteristic dominance of the ball, as Cork were forced to feed off scraps. Yet, with what was effectively their first attack of the game in the 15th minute, City took the lead. Liam Kearney swung a ball in from the left and with the Pats defence flatfooted, Mark O’Sullivan was afforded the luxury of two bites of the cherry inside the six-yard box, scoring on the rebound after keeper Brendan Clarke had parried his first effort.
Pats responded with some sustained pressure on the Cork goal, though it was the visitors who again created the game’s next big chance, Gary Buckley just failing to control a superb floated pass from Billy Dennehy which split open the home defence.
Pats though continued to dictate the tempo, the likes of James Chambers, Daryl Kavanagh, Lee Lynch and, as always, Keith Fahey, combining to weave patterns which, while often pretty, ultimately lacked penetration. A lot of that was down to City’s hard work behind the ball, typified by the efforts of Brian Lenihan — who was being watched by Bournemouth last night — as he was obliged to keep one eye on Airticity player of the month Chris Forrester and another on overlapping full-back Ian Birmingham.
City began the second half with Mark McNulty still largely untroubled between his posts. That seemed to have changed within two minutes of restart, however, only for Daryl Kavanagh to have his close-range finish ruled out for offside. But as Pats piled on the pressure, the reprieve for Cork was short-lived, Lenihan bundling over Birmingham in the box and Conan Byrne making no mistake from the spot to level the game in the 53rd minute.
It was all Pats now and really no surprise when they took the lead in the 64th minute as Kenny Browne forced the ball home from close range after the Cork defence had failed to deal with Forrester’s fierce low drive across the face of goal.
As the rain teemed down on Richmond Park, here now was another test of character for John Caulfield’s side but, though they responded with vigour and spirit, they struggled to create a clear-cut chance. With 12 minutes remaining, the manager made a double substitution, and it was one of those newcomers, Rob Lehane, who equalised for the visitors with virtually his first touch of the ball, suddenly finding himself in the clear and then keeping his composure to round Clarke and finish from a tight angle.
But, even as the game moved into three minutes of time added on, there was to be one final twist. Conan Byrne steered home a Kavanagh pass to leave Cork down and out on the sodden turf and send Pats soaring to the top of the league.
ST PATRICK’S ATHLETIC: Clarke, O’Brien, Hoare, Browne, Bermingham, Byrne, Keith Fahey, Lynch, Chambers (Brennan 80), Forrester (Bolger 86), Fagan (Kavanagh 4)
CORK CITY: McNulty, Lenihan, Murray, D. Dennehy, Dunleavy, B. Dennehy, Healy, G Morrisey, Kearney (Turner, 78), Buckley (Lehane 78), O’Sullivan.
Referee: Pádraigh Sutton (Clare).