In truth, the hosts would not have been flattered by a more generous winning margin, with Mark McNulty — whose mistake had helped gift the hosts their breakthrough — brilliantly saving a second half Robbie Benson penalty which would have put the outcome beyond doubt with over 15 minutes still to play.
But, in the end, Dundalk, who had numerous efforts on goal, were not to be denied a thoroughly deserved first win in eight attempts against the champions and cup holders who were very much out of sorts on the night.
“It was a great team performance. Our backs were against the wall but we showed plenty of spirit,” Hoban told eirSport.
Youth had replaced experience at the heart of the City defence, 19-year-old Conor McCarthy taking over from injured veteran Alan Bennett while, in the number 10 role, Garry Buckley got the nod ahead of Barry McNamee, though it wouldn’t be long before the former Derry City man entered the fray.
Despite hopes that they would be available, Brian Gartland and Stephen O’Donnell both failed to make the Dundalk squad, last night’s team showing two changes from the side which put eight past Limerick, with Sean Hoare and Jamie McGrath coming in.
The Lilywhites’ goal-fest last time out, coming after the double false start of two no-score draws, had tended to deflect attention away from the robust statistic that, as they prepared to meet a City side who had already banked nine in three league outings, Stephen Kenny’s team had yet to concede a single goal in the new campaign. Now they can boast an impressive four clean sheets on the trot.
It all seemed nicely set up then for another meaty encounter between the big beasts of the domestic game as referee Paul McLaughlin got proceedings got under way in front of a crowd of 3,563 under the Oriel Park lights.
There were just four minutes on the clock when the home crowd were roaring their approval and Mark McNulty was left holding his head in his hands. The Cork keeper seemed to have comfortably handled Ronan Murray’s free-kick but, as he dropped to the ground by the foot of the post, he somehow allowed the ball to slip from his grasp and Lilywhites striker Pat Hoban was in the right place to capitalise on the error and poke the ball over the line.
City responded with a strong spell of pressure as the game continued at a rip-roaring pace, played out in a feverish atmosphere on and off the pitch, but McNulty soon had an opportunity to redeem himself with a finger-tip save from Dane Massey’s deflected shot before it was the turn of Shane Griffin to clear what looked a goal-bound shot from Murray.
John Caulfield waited only 20 minutes to make a radical change, the City boss deciding to sacrifice the defensive strength of skipper Conor McCormack — who had also picked up an early yellow card — in favour of the playmaking ability of Barry McNamee, as a compelling game continued to swing from one end to the other.
Just past the half-hour mark, Dundalk’s Michael Duffy curved a wonderful low drive inches wide of McNulty’s far post before, almost immediately, Cork were on the attack and fashioning a big double chance, with Gary Rogers first saving well from McNamee and then Kieran Sadlier’s follow-up effort cleared from in front of the line by Daniel Cleary standing sentry behind his keeper.
Half-time finally allowed the players — and supporters — a chance to catch their breath but it didn’t take long after the restart for the temperature to be raised again, Duffy going close with a fierce angled drive as the hosts resumed firmly on the front foot. And in the 56th minute, after an initial mistake by Buckley surrendered possession, Hoban should have doubled his and Dundalk’s tally, only to drag his shot wide when he had a clear view of goal from a good position in the box.
McNulty then foiled Murray at the end of a sweeping Dundalk move through the centre and, from the resultant corner, the City keeper again dropped the ball but, in the ensuing scramble, no white shirt was able to get decisive contact.
With the Cork goal now under sustained pressure, McNulty once more atoned for his unsafe handling with a brilliant tip over from a Dane Massey screamer but, with the pressure almost relentless, it seemed only a matter of time before Dundalk would succeed in putting the game to bed. And they really should have done so in the 73rd minute when they were awarded a penalty after referee McLaughlin harshly judged that Robbie Benson had been brought down by Steven Beattie. But it could be argued that, in this instance, justice was served, as McNulty — who really was having a night both to remember and forget—– produced a superb save to turn Benson’s spot-kick around the post.
With seven minutes to go, Duffy had another chance to seal the deal after Benson’s back-heel had opened up a clear route to goal. But for what seemed the umpteenth time on the night from a Dundalk point of view, Duffy’s shot flew agonisingly the wrong side of McNulty’s far post.
With a minute remaining, Benson created and then failed to convert yet another great chance but, in the end, it didn’t matter: one goal would prove enough for a victory over their great rivals which was rapturously received at the final whistle by the Oriel faithful.
“It’s always a tough when you lose a game,” said McNulty after the game. “I’ve made a mistake and it’s after costing us. It’s one of those things when you’re a goalkeeper. Mistakes happen and you just got to get on with it. We go again now on Monday night against Shamrock Rovers.”
Rogers, Gannon, Cleary, Hoare, Massey, Shields, Benson McGrath (Jarvis 91), Murray (Chvedukas 77), Duffy, Hoban (Tagbajumi 89).
McNulty, Beattie, McCarthy, Barry, Griffin, Morrissey, McCormack (McNamee 20), Sheppard, Buckley (Keohane 77), Sadlier, Cummins
Paul McLaughlin (Donegal).