Dundalk are on the very brink of a third successive league title after Cork City’s collapse against St Patrick’s Athletic opened up a seven-point gap at the top with only three games remaining.
Pat’s boss Liam Buckley had promised his side would have a say in the title race and this 3-1 win certainly felt like the last word for Cork’s title ambitions.
The two sides will meet again in Turner’s Cross next Friday but, already, the Rebel Army must be thinking ahead to next month’s FAI Cup final as their only chance for a really meaningful triumph over Stephen Kenny’s team in 2016.
For the visitors, Kevin O’Connor, Alan Bennett and Kenny Browne were all passed fit after recovering from knocks picked up in the 2-0 win over Finn Harps but Gearóid Morrissey, who pulled up with a tight hamstring in the cup semi-final at this venue two weeks ago, was on the bench at the start, Gavan Holohan retaining his place in midfield.
Ex-Cork man Billy Dennehy was among the substitutes for Pat’s, as Liam Buckley’s team looked to put a 2-1 loss to Bray Wanderers behind them in the first of two back-to-back games against John Caulfield’s men.
A combination of Liverpool v Man United on the telly, Pat’s having nothing but pride to play for and a Monday night slot which militated against big numbers travelling from Cork, made for a dismayingly paltry attendance of 369 at Richmond Park, voices echoing around the ground as the action got under way.
And it was Pat’s who made the brighter start, Mark McNulty having to dive to his left to turn away a powerful Graham Kelly drive four minutes in. But, just two minutes later, some sloppy play at the back from the home side allowed Sean Maguire a clear sight of goal only for skipper Ger O’Brien to save his side with a last-ditch tackle at the expense of a corner.
But in the 16th minute, Pat’s shocked the title chasers by taking the lead, Michael Barker passing inside to Christy Fagan and, after the striker left Kenny Browne badly off balance, his left-footed shot did the rest.
City almost responded immediately but Karl Sheppard saw his header chested off the line by Jamie McGrath before Sheppard again headed narrowly over, this time from a Greg Bolger free on the right.
Dominant on the ball if not on the scoreboard, City were showing plenty of composure as well as determination in their efforts to get back into the game, the Pat’s defence living dangerously at times as the visitors applied sustained pressure.
But, at the other end, City were only ever one counter-attack, setpiece or error away from being in deeper trouble ,as when Conan Byrne, turning inside the box, scuffed a shot from a dangerous position into the grateful arms of Mark McNulty or when, profiting from a Browne error as the defender’s lunge failed to intercept a pass, the always dangerous Fagan struck low and hard just the wrong side of the post.
But right on the stroke of half-time City got the equaliser their patience and perseverance deserved, Alan Bennett rising highest to head home Stephen Dooley’s corner from close range, a perfectly timed response from the side which could ill afford a slip-up.
Boosted by getting back on level terms, City showed every intention of going for the jugular right from the restart but Pat’s weathered the storm and, taking advantage of a couple of misplaced City passes, threatened themselves with a couple of quick breaks before, in the 70th minute, Caulfield sought to refresh his charges, Dave Mulcahy coming in at full-back to allow Steven Beattie get forward on the right flank and, shortly after, 19-year-old Chiedozie Ogbene replacing Holahan.
But it was Pat’s who grew stronger the longer the game went on. In the 75th minute, Ian Birmingham’s 30-yard dipping effort was clawed out from under the angle of crossbar and post by McNulty, before Ogbene showed his pace and close control to run at the home rearguard and then set up Beattie for a shooting chance he couldn’t keep down.
With eight minutes left, Caulfield made his last throw of the dice, Mark O’Sullivan coming on for Stephen Dooley but it was Pat’s sub Verdon who had the decisive say, striding on to Conan Byrne’s pull back to hit the sweetest of right-footed shots into the top corner of McNulty’s net.
A brilliant goal for the Pat’s faithful to celebrate but it already felt like a deathblow to Cork City’s rapidly fading chances of knocking Dundalk off their pedestal before Conan Byrne put the icing on the cake for the home side and completed the visitors’ night of misery — and what was their heaviest defeat of the season — by converting a 93rd minute penalty.
Clarke, O’Brien (Feely 79), D. Dennehy, Hoare, Birmingham, Byrne, Kelly (B. Dennehy 88), Desmond, B Dennehy, Barker (Verdon 55), McGrath, Fagan
McNulty, Beattie, Bennett, Browne, O’Connor, Dooley (O’Sullivan 82), Bolger, Holahan (Ogbene 73), Buckley, Sheppard (Mulcahy 70), Maguire Referee: Ben Connolly (Dublin)