The brief, almost ceremonial, appearance of the Irish football legend, was the icing on the cake for Pat Fenlon’s side who, always passing with more precision and penetration than their opponents, were thoroughly in control for much of the game, as a well below par City slumped to a second defeat in succession.
After the game, Cork City manager John Caulfield conceded that Dundalk now look set fair to claim back to back titles.
“Dundalk have the league won, more or less, to be honest with you,” he said. “If you were a betting man you’d be paying bets on Dundalk at the moment. It’s been a tough four days for us and we’re bitterly disappointed, although I said to the lads afterwards that you don’t become a bad team overnight and now we have huge cup game, against Pats, on Friday night. We’re at home and it’s an opportunity for us to see if we can put things right.”
Duff had begun on the bench for Rovers, the starting line-ups further stripped of international experience with Stephen McPhail on the injured list for the Hoops, Keith Fahey sadly retired and Colin Healy among the Cork substitutes, leaving Liam Miller and Alan Bennett as the only players on the pitch at kick-off with senior caps for Ireland.
There are concerns at Turner’s Cross that John Dunleavy’s fractured cheekbone, although it won’t require surgery, could see him out for the rest of the season, while also on the injury list for the visitors last night were Gavan Holohan and Danny Morrissey.
But John Kavanagh was back at full-back while striker Mark O’Sullivan had recovered sufficiently from the knock he picked up against Limerick, to make John Caulfield’s starting 11.
Rovers began much the brighter of the two sides and, in the 11th minute, it took an excellent one-handed save by City keeper Mark McNulty to deny Max Blanchard’s header from a Simon Madden cross. Just two minutes later, the home side came even closer, Gavin Brennan thumping a low drive against the foot of the upright after some typically clever build-up play by Gary McCabe.
But, uncharacteristically, it was McCabe who gifted City their first chance of the game in the 27th minute. Stephen Beattie was quickest to react by seizing on the midfielder’s loose crossßfield pass to drive at the heart of the Rovers defence before striking a left-footed shot which Barry Murphy did well to tip around the post — although much to Cork’s annoyance, the corner was not given.
But a Kevin O’Connor corner six minutes later almost gave City the lead, skipper Bennett seeing his well-placed header cleared off the line by McCabe.
When the breakthrough finally came in the 36th minute, however, it deservedly went Rovers’ way, Brandon Miele showing a deft touch to feed the overlapping Luke Byrne on the left and, from his high cross, Gavin Brennan rose head and shoulders above Dan Murray to leave McNulty helpless with a looping header.
The half ended with Rovers vainly claiming a handball in the Cork penalty area but with the visitors having all the questions to answer as the sides went in at the break.
And things only went from bad to worse for the men in red 10 minutes after the restart, Mikey Drennan doing well to chase down what seemed a lost cause and getting in a cross from right on the end line which Danny North, beating Bennett to the flight of the ball, headed firmly to the back of the Cork net.
That’s the way it stayed until two minutes from the end, when Brandon Miele sliced through the heart of the Cork defence to make it three, the insurance goal Hoops boss Pat Fenlon clearly saw as the cue to finally send on Duff for his long awaited, if decidedly brief, League of Ireland debut.
There was just about enough time for Duff to complain to one of his new team mates for not giving him a pass and then to win a free in trademark stooping fashion before the final whistle marked the end of his brief debut.
A delighted Rovers boss Pat Fenlon — who described his team’s performance as probably their best of the season — revealed that he had only ever planned to introduce Damien Duff if his side were “either chasing the game or a little bit comfortable — and I didn’t think we’d be that comfortable, to be honest with you. But it was great to get him on the pitch because he’s worked hard and it was good to give him a little taste of it.”
Murphy, Madden, Kenna, Webster, Byrne, G. Brennan, McCabe, Blanchard, Miele (Duff 88), North (McCaffrey 83), Drennan.
McNulty, Kavanagh (Healy 77), Bennett (D. Dennehy 60), Murray, O’Connor, Beattie, Miller, Buckley, Gaynor (O’Connell 60), Sheppard, O’Sullivan
Thomas Connolly (Dublin)