The women’s side beat UCD Waves to win their FAI Cup final before the men stepped up to the spot, in every sense, and, in adding the cup to the league trophy, confirmed their position as the dominant force in Irish football in 2017.
Not that those bare bones headlines give the slightest sense of the extra-time drama which saw Dundalk on the brink of victory after a thumping Niclas Vemmelund header had put them in front before ever resilient Cork snatched a late equaliser through Achille Campion and then prevailed in a nerve-shredding penalty shoot-out in which Mark McNulty’s save from Michael Duffy set up Kieran Sadlier to land the killer blow.
The stories within the stories will be remembered for a long time in Cork.
Karl Sheppard, about to swap City for Dundalk, providing, in one of his last acts for the Leesiders, the clever lobbed pass which set up Campion’s equaliser. McNulty, Dundalk’s pantomime villain turned Cork’s number one hero, diving to keep out Duffy’s spot kick. And, finally, Sadlier, like Campion the wonder sub, coming off the bench to have the decisive say.
On a cold but sunny day at the Aviva, the action was seven minutes old when Dundalk produced the game’s first effort on goal, McNulty getting down well to push away an angled Jamie McGrath drive after some typically slick interplay in the build-up by the Lilywhites.
Then it was Cork’s turn to work the keeper, Gary Rogers showing quick reflexes to deny Sheppard from close range after a Shane Griffin and Stephen Dooley short corner ploy had almost caught the Dundalk rearguard cold.
Sheppard was a thorn in the side of his prospective new employers in the opening phase, ever willing to run into the channels and chase flick-ons, as an encouragingly open game made for good entertainment for a crowd of 24,210. But playing with finesse as well as fire, it was City who were dominant in the first half-hour, Rogers the busier keeper as he had to make two saves in quick succession to keep out efforts from first Stephen Dooley and then Sheppard.
It was hardly all one-way traffic, however, and, in the 29th minute, as Dundalk came more into the game, it was McNulty’s turn to warm his gloves, beating away Jamie McGrath’s shot and then relieved to see David McMillan shoot wide from the rebound.
With Cork’s Conor McCormack doing a fine job in breaking up the play, there was little enough to separate two evenly matched teams going into the break, the absence of a cutting edge for either side the only thing keeping the scoreboard bare.
McCormack was central to City surviving a hairy goal-mouth scramble soon after the restart before Dooley and Jimmy Keohane combined well at the other end to set up a left-footed drive by the latter that was well saved by Rogers.
But, even though Dundalk began to take firm control of proceedings from that point on, there was still nothing to give either side the critical advantage, which is why, just short of the hour mark, John Caulfield turned to a potential game-changer, Kieran Sadlier coming off the bench for Jimmy Keohane.
Ten minutes later Stephen Kenny followed suit, and for much the same reasons, Dylan Connolly replaced Jamie McGrath.
But, at the very end of normal time — after Dundalk, playing with poise if not penetration, had bossed the ball for the majority of the half — it was veteran keeper Rogers who was suddenly called upon to keep the Lilywhites in it, brilliantly reacting to thwart Garry Buckley’s close-range effort, even though any kind of better contact from the midfielder would surely have put the ball in the net after Sheppard had nodded Dooley’s dinked cross back into the danger zone.
So, in keeping with recent history between these two sides, it was going to take extra-time to produce the breakthrough and, in the 95th minute, Niclas Vemmeland delivered just that in the form a thunderous header from a superb Michael Duffy free, the ball flying inside the near post to leave McNulty helpless.
Caulfield emptied his bench in a bid to get City back in it, and it was one of those subs, Achille Campion, who stopped premature Dundalk celebrations dead in their tracks with eight minutes remaining.
Sheppard’s lob forward was astute, Dundalk’s attempt to play offside self-destructive, and Campion’s chest control, swivel, and shot exemplary, even if Rogers did get something on the ball before it found the back of the net.
And so the 2017 final came down to a penalty shootout, City immaculate from the spot as Sheppard, Greg Bolger, McCormack, and Steven Beattie all found the net. David McMillan, Stephen O’Donnell, and Robbie Benson had done likewise for Dundalk but, when it came to their fourth effort, Michael Duffy couldn’t beat McNulty. And then up stepped Sadlier to seal the double deal for Cork with the final kick of the season.
Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Brian Gartland (Sean Hoare 91) Niclas Vemmelund, Dane Massey; Stephen O’Donnell, Robbie Benson; Michael Duffy, Patrick McEleney (John Mountey (108), Jamie McGrath (Dylan Connoly); David McMillan.
Mark McNulty, Steven Beattie, Alan Bennett, Ryan Delaney, Shane Griffin, Conor McCormack, Gearoid Morrissey (Greg Bolger 99); Jimmy Keohane (Kieran Sadlier 57), Garry Buckley (Achille Campion 99), Stephen Dooley; Karl Sheppard.
Paul McLaughlin (Donegal)