The rumour mill would have it that the Portmarnock man will be swapping Leeside for the north-east over the off-season — Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny didn’t deny his club’s interest last week — and that left the 26-year-old in a curious position.
Curious, but not awkward. This was no time for divided loyalties.
Sheppard is no clone of Sean Maguire but he has foraged ceaselessly in the lone striker role since City’s attacking talisman left Ireland for the second time for another crack at the English game. Too often without much in the way of reward.
Whatever business awaits off the field in the weeks to come, it was never going to impinge on the unfolding of events here. Though a right-winger for most of his career, Sheppard’s strengths were prominent as he scavenged up front again.
The pickings were surprisingly rich early on.
City’s strong start offered him plenty of opportunity and his willingness to scurry and stretch his markers took Brian Gartland and Niclas Vemmelund out towards the corner flags where your average centre-back tends to feel less sure of foot.
One wild swipe from Vemmelund let him in the side door for a cross that was intercepted, a tight but correct offside call nipped a clear run on goal in the bud, and he put any thoughts of possible future friendships on hold with a physical challenge on Sean Gannon.
City’s top scorer two seasons ago, Sheppard was one short of double figures come kick-off yesterday afternoon and he again showed his ability to think and act quickly in tight surrounds when his flick from a short corner was repelled by the legs of Gary Rogers.
Dundalk, in keeping with the spirit of this rivalry, readily accepted the challenge.
Sheppard’s effort proved to be only one among a multitude of chances engineered by both sides in a game that, though far from captivating, wasn’t anything like the tight and tense affair that many had feared and predicted.
Dundalk and Cork have leveraged one another to raise their own standards for some time now so there was a temptation to use this cup final as a barometer, not just as to where the pair find themselves at the end of one season, but to where they might lie entering the next.
Cork’s torturous stutter towards the league title, and Dundalk’s impressive run through the season’s second half, had left the court of public opinion well balanced on that score but most of what we saw yesterday just reinforced the sense of near parity.
It’s a sense of equilibrium that has fostered no little edge and bite.
Mark McNulty had done his bit there, his recent musical commentary on what he thought of the Lilywhites ensuring that he would be central to the thoughts of the Dundalk fans long before his crucial save in the shoot-out.
From the gutter, was how Kenny had described McNulty’s comments so the irony should have been lost on nobody when the Dundalk supporters raided the same fetid surrounds when chanting the City goalkeeper’s name on occasion.
Still, it seemed only right that Sheppard, whose future seemingly lies poised on the halfway line between Turner’s Cross and Oriel Park, was so central to a final which, for a third year in a row, required more than the 90 minutes to separate them.
So close to providing the assist for Alan Bennett and/or Garry Buckley to win it in injury-time, it was his superb chip that played in Achille Campion for the equaliser after Vemmelund had given Dundalk the lead in the first extra period.
The uncertainty over Sheppard’s next move, and those of so many other players throughout the Airtricity League in the off-season, is proof that predictions as to where these two clubs will stand in the pecking order in 12 months’ time are hostages to fortune.
This was Cork’s day. Cork’s season.
Everything else is irrelevant for now.