In truth, though, it was deserved and Patrick Hoban’s 66th minute winner keeps Dundalk fans dreaming of a first league title in 19 years. The manner of the win should at least give them real belief that the challenge can be sustained through a period where continued European involvement will stretch resources and reserves of energy.
Dundalk had plenty of the latter, as well as the game’s most creative players in Richie Towell, Daryl Horgan and Darren Meenan, and Stephen Kenny’s jubilant fist-pump on the final whistle reflected the importance of the win. It was also a release after a tense, often fractious, encounter.
Hoban’s goal was the first moment of real creativity and quality that was lacking in a frenetic first half.
The quick, high pressing of both sides suffocated a midfield that was staging its own mini battle: Chris Shields went in late and hard on Shane Robinson and could have seen more than yellow; Robinson sought his own retribution when he caught Shields two minutes later and was also booked.
Gary McCabe had been the one Rovers player threatening to add some quality but even he caught the malaise, earning a booking following a rash challenge on Dane Massey.
With both midfields obsessed with closing down space, any moments of quality in the first half were coming from the wide areas. Simon Madden moved forward from right-back but his curling left-foot strike didn’t have the required pace to trouble Peter Cherrie.
Richie Towell finally found space to break forward just before half-time after a neat combination between Hoban and Meenan but Barry Murphy moved smartly off his line to block with his legs. It was the clearest opening of an edgy contest.
Ironically, it was after the withdrawal of the game’s two most inventive players, Horgan and McCabe, that Dundalk went ahead. Again, the breakthrough came from out wide. The impressive Meenan fed Kurtis Byrne and when he flashed a low ball across the goal, Hoban tapped in at the back post.
The away side should have doubled the lead soon after only for an outstanding save from Barry Murphy to deny them. It was Towell again who raced forward, this time reaching a Donal McDermott through-ball, killing it perfectly and firing a shot that Murphy instinctively flung himself at and then reacted to scrape the ball away as it inched towards the line.
With the stakes high, Kenny’s side showed admirable composure to see the game out and inflict just a second home league defeat of the season on Rovers.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: B Murphy; S Madden, C Kenna, J McGuinness, D O’Connor; R Finn, R Brennan (R Bayly, 79), S Robinson, G McCabe (S O’Connor, 63); E Zayed, D Kelly (C Kilduff, 71).
DUNDALK: P Cherrie; S Gannon, B Gartland, A Boyle, D Massey; C Shields, R Towell; D Meenan (J Mountney, 90), K Byrne (R Higgins, 83), D Horgan (D McDermott, 58); P Hoban.
Referee: P McLaughlin (Donegal).