A draw would have only cut the gap between them and Cork City to five points, and mean that City had gone five games without a win. It was about a minute away from becoming reality before Dan Murray got his head to Colin Healy’s corner and all heaven broke loose at Turner’s Cross.
While Darren Dennehy’s equaliser against Dundalk a few weeks ago was followed by the concession of a winner, here there were no slip-ups. Paul Tuite’s whistle brought more joy and the realisation that only three points separate the top two.
Manager John Caulfield hailed the response of his side after three draws and a loss.
“It’s been a difficult three or four weeks, but the lads bounced back and showed great character,” he said.
“You get knocks in this game but you have to override them and come back stronger.
“At half-time, we said to the lads to keep going, that it could be like the Pat’s match, we might get a late winner and we scored at the perfect time. I didn’t realise the other result until we came off, but to hear that Pat’s won means we’re still there and it moves us a step closer to Europe.”
City’s only change from the 2-2 draw with Athlone Town in the previous outing was the replacement of the injured Billy Dennehy by Liam Kearney, while Rovers started with the same 11 which had beat Sligo.
The game began at a lively pace, with the home side’s John O’Flynn having a low shot from 20 yards whistle just wide inside the first five minutes. While the tempo remained high after that, though, goal chances were at a premium. That Rovers left-winger Kieran Water’s cross landing on the roof of Mark McNulty’s net drew such a gasp told its own story.
In the 24th minute, the hosts felt that they should have had a penalty when Mark O’Sullivan appeared to be pushed in the area by Simon Madden, but referee Paul Tuite ignored any appeals.
With the Rovers defence proving difficult to break down, City’s best chance of breaking the deadlock looked to be with efforts from distance, and just before the half-hour Garry Buckley’s shot had to pushed around the post by Barry Murphy. Even when they threatened to make inroads, as when John O’Flynn headed the ball across goal, it was a gold shirt, in the form of Conor Kenna, who dealt with the situation.
At the other end, there was little to trouble McNulty barring a Stephen McPhail free kick which he diverted for a corner.
When Tuite blew for half-time a few seconds early, City were in the same position as before kick-off, only now with 45 minutes left to get the goal to cut Dundalk’s lead to three points.
With the visiting support having enlivened the interval with flares and a banner saying ‘Blinded By The Lights’, the atmosphere among the 3,265 rose upon the resumption but speculative efforts remained the most common goal attempts.
Waters saw his shot tipped over by McNulty and Gearóid Morrissey didn’t even make Murphy dive with his, but City’s urgency increased as the time began to run out. First, Jason McGuinness had to make a good sliding challenge to deny O’Sullivan.
City thought their opportunity had gone when Ross Gaynor’s delivery from a free kick on the left was met by the unmarked Murray but his header flew across goal, and O’Flynn failed to meet the ball at the back post.
When Murray got his next chance, however, he made no mistake.
CORK CITY: McNulty; Dunleavy, Murray, D Dennehy, Gaynor; G Morrissey, Healy; O’Flynn (D Morrissey 87), Buckley, Kearney (O’Shea 61), O’Sullivan.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Murphy; Madden, Kenna, McGuinness, Byrne; Waters, Bayly, Cregg (Finn 59), McPhail, O’Connor (McCabe 80); Sheppard (Kilduff 74).
Referee: P Tuite (Dublin).