Defeat underneath the shadow of the Dublin mountains last night was the third in five league games for John Caulfield’s league leaders, and a fourth in eight in all competitions, but the summit remains well within their reach.
Another five points will still do it, after all.
The buzz all week was that they could maybe claim the crown last night if Dundalk failed to put away St Patrick’s Athletic. Caulfield had played that scenario down, but events in Oriel Park dimmed in relevance on a night when his own boys were a distant second best.
This was, notably, City’s first away loss in the league. Thirteen previous trips had delivered a dozen wins and a draw. And not just that: It was the first time that any other Premier Division side has managed to put even two goals past them.
Quite the stat after 27 games.
Rovers were excellent at times and the last half-hour delivered a game of to and fro between sides playing at full pelt, but it didn’t quite live up to the pre-game theatre when the respective managers had engaged in a game of verbal tennis.
Stephen Bradley hadn’t bitten on Caulfield’s claim that Rovers had been guilty of some gamesmanship in previous meetings this season, but he had suggested that his side must be seen as a looming threat what with the City boss harping on about them so much.
That drew a few chuckles, given the 27-point difference between them at kick-off and, while Bradley accepted that there was a still a gulf to be negotiated, the leap from a side hovering fourth in the table to one with genuine title aspirations seems smaller after this.
Rovers knew that a win against the champions-elect would at least take them above Derry City into third on the ladder as the pair battle it out for that last European spot and the home team played with considerable more urgency from the off.
That Rovers would be a challenge was hardly unexpected. Five straight wins in all competitions had given City warning of the task facing them. So too the 1-0 EA Sports Cup semi-final loss at this same venue early last month.
The setting could hardly have been better: One of the league’s best grounds on the sort of crisp night when every pass along the carpeted surface was layered with a coating of dew. Yet, for all that and the possible prize at stake, City were miles off the pace for far too long.
Rovers dominated the ball from the first minute, but without threatening Mark McNulty’s nets until, with 12 minutes played, Ronan Finn took a touch about 25 yards out and let loose a shot that deflected off Alan Bennett and past the keeper.
McNulty was powerless to prevent the damage done by the unexpected change of flight, but it was the failure of his colleagues to shut Finn down that had sown the seeds for such trouble in the first place.
It said a lot about City’s start.
And it did nothing to stir Cork from their slumber.
The second was easier on the eye. Brandon Miele had already seen a couple of half-chances fall wide and short by the time he doubled the lead 28 minutes in, his curling right-footer slipping past McNulty’s left glove after a mazy run from Trevor Clarke had been stopped on the edge of the area.
City finally began to rouse themselves, but half-time slipped past without any meaningful riposte and they could have fallen three behind 56 minutes in only for McNulty, who blocked another Miele effort after a break down the Rovers left wing.
The last half-hour was mostly City and they halved the deficit with 20 minutes to go thanks to a beauty of a low drive from outside the box by Gearoid Morrissey that gave Tomer Chencinski, blinded by legs and bodies, no chance.
It took another 15 minutes for the debate to be ended with substitute Michael O’Connor spooning the ball high into the City net from a yard or two out after being fed from the touchline by the excellent Finn.
Game over, but not the season.
Next up for Cork in the league? Dundalk at Turner’s Cross.
T Chencinski; S Madden, L Grace, R Lopes, T Clarke; D McAllister; B Miele, R Finn, A Bolger, R Connolly; G Shaw.S Bone for Bolger (72); M O’Connor for Shaw (76).
M McNulty; S Beattie, A Bennett, R Delaney, S Griffin; G Morrissey, C McCormack; J Keohane, G Buckley, K Sadlier; K Sheppard.R Williams for Bennett and C Ellis for McCormack (both HT); A Campion for Beattie (65).