And with Martin O’Neill in attendance, the critical difference between the two sides was the dazzling Daryl Horgan, who opened the scoring with a sublime free-kick — even if, technically, it goes down as an own goal since it required an unwitting touch from City ‘keeper Mark McNulty to ensure the ball crossed the line — and followed up with a sensational solo effort and goal of the season contender.
The irony, of course, is that City are the club who lost Horgan to Dundalk while, by contrast, the league’s leading scorer, Sean Maguire, who made the journey in reverse, had a rare evening to forget. In this episode of ‘The Ex-Files’, it was Horgan who possessed the supernatural edge.
City, to their credit, showed plenty of fight to claw a goal back in the second half through substitute Mark O’Sullivan but, demonstrating admirable resilience themselves after that shock 3-0 loss to Sligo — and thoroughly vindicating manager Stephen Kenny’s selection changes — Dundalk ultimately prevailed to put the defence of their title firmly back on track.
In-form Cork came into the game looking for a clean sweep of victories over Dundalk in this league campaign, with President’s Cup bragging rights already in the bag and, of course, an FAI Cup final between the two sides still to come.
But it’s the race for the title which is centre stage now. For all the plaudits they have deservedly received for their superb performances in Europe, Stephen Kenny and his team have never lost sight of the primacy of the league title. And it’s not just because three-in-a-row would confirm their standing as one of the greatest of all League of Ireland sides; having fallen just short of the Champions League group stage this season, they also need to retain their domestic crown if they are to hope to go one better in Europe’s most prestigious club competition in 2017.
The home side showed four changes from the starting 11 which fell so badly short against Sligo here on Saturday, Gabriel Sava replacing Gary Rogers in goal, Alan Keane coming in for Sean Gannon at right-back, Patrick Mc Eleney overcoming a hip problem to replace Chris Shields and John Mountney taking the place of Darren Meenan..
With Gearoid Morrissey still out with the hamstring he pulled in the Cup semi-final win over St Patrick’s, John Caulfield stuck with the City side which trounced Galway at the weekend, Gavan Holohan retaining his place in midfield.
In front of the RTÉ cameras and a packed house of 4,136 at Oriel Park, the game got off to a slightly frantic, even ragged start, before a moment of magic from the inimitable Horgan gave Dundalk the lead after just six minutes. Cork were incensed that Patrick McEleney had gone down too easily under Alan Bennett’s challenge outside the box but there was nothing dubious about Horgan’s superb technique from the resulting free kick, even if the ball did come down off the underside of the bar and strike goalkeeper Mark McNulty before crossing the line.
It was the home side’s turn to claim rough justice in the 16th minute when referee Tomas Connolly took a benign view of the ball striking Alan Bennett’s hand in the box before, with the action in an already compelling and often feisty encounter now swinging from one end to the other, Cork had their first big chance of the evening, Garry Buckley seeing his close range header cleared from just in front of the goalline by the impressive Alan Keane and scrambled away.
Buckley and Greg Bolger were productive for City in the middle of the park as City sought to get the ball down and spread the play but, as the visitors pushed bodies forward in search of an equaliser, Dundalk’s pace on the break carried a constant threat.
And when another City attack broke down in the 36th minute, it was Horgan who took it upon himself to turn defence into attack in blistering fashion, getting on the the ball just inside the opposition half, before leaving Bolger for dead and then, with no other green shirt able to get close to him, much less attempt a challenge, sprinting towards the edge of the Cork box and applying the coup de grace by unleashing a rocket of a shot into the back of the net.
It was a brilliant goal by a brilliant player, whose admirable work rate in tracking back — the necessarily ugly side of Horgan’s beautiful game — should also endear him to the watching Ireland manager.
With Alan Keane keeping winger Stephen Dooley under wraps and the league’s leading scorer Sean Maguire starved of service and barely allowed a sniff in the centre, it was Dundalk in total control at the break, the visitors now urgently in need of something special — or even a stroke of good fortune — to get themselves back into the game in the second half.
John Caulfield made his move in the 54th minute, sending on Mark O’Sullivan to join Maguire upfront and, inside just two minutes, the ever reliable super sub delivered, finding the net at the second attempt — albeit via a deflection — after Steven Beattie’s low cross had caused problems in the Lilywhites penalty area.
Suddenly it was game on, with both sides giving it their all — and then digging deep to find a bit more — in what was now a rip-roaring contest, played out in a white-hot atmosphere.
But, even with yellow cards in profusion, it was Dundalk, showing the stuff of champions, who kept their cool and their lead right to the end of five minutes of time added on. At the final whistle, the home crowd erupted like the title was already in the bag and, certainly, its destiny is firmly back in the Lilywhites’ hands.
But with five games still to go in this fascinating duel, it would be foolish to write off a Cork City side who, even in defeat last night, showed they will be up for the fight right to the end.
Sava, Keane (Barrett 90), Gartland, Boyle, Massey, O’Donnell, Finn, McEleney (Shields 58), Mountney, Horgan, McMillan (O’Connor 83)
McNulty, Beattie, Bennett, Browne, O’Connor, Buckley, Bolger, Holahan (O’Sullivan 54), Sheppard (Ogbene 74), Dooley (Mulcahy 85), Maguire
Tomas Connolly (Dublin)