Two weeks ago at Turner’s Cross, Dundalk celebrated like they champions they were about to be. Last night at Oriel Park, they celebrated like the champions they are.
Cork City might have doubled up on the Lilywhites last season but this latest title success for Stephen Kenny’s team — their fourth in five seasons — confirms their status as the dominant force in Irish football in recent years.
At the end of what is already another season to remember, they still have a cup final to come.
The Lilywhites went into this meeting with St Patrick’s Athletic needing just one point from their final four league games to seal a deal which, realistically, had not really been in doubt since Cork City crashed to a 4-2 defeat against Bohemians in Dalymount Park a month ago.
Last night, it might have taken them until the final minute of normal time for — no surprise here — Pat Hoban to score the equaliser which delivered that decisive point but, even on the back of a less than convincing performance, no one will ever be able to claim there was anything remotely lucky about the 13th title in the club’s history.
Over the long haul they fully deserve to be the 2018 champs, having comfortably scored more goals (77) and conceded far fewer (18) than any other team in the Premier Division. And that’s before you factor in the wonderfully fluent style of play which, even if not on full display last night, has become such a Lilywhites trademark under Stephen Kenny’s stewardship.
Pat’s, under the caretaker management of Ger O’Brien since the departure of Liam Buckley, are a team and a club in transition and, as such, were always going to have their work cut out to pull off the role of party-poopers in front of a packed house and the live television cameras at Oriel Park. But, to their credit, having survived an early storm, they came very close to doing just that.
The game was barely three minutes old when Dundalk showed their determination to complete the job in emphatic fashion, with first Robbie Benson and then Patrick McEleney hitting the woodwork in a spectacular passage of play which, with Hoban dragging the final rebound wide, delivered everything but the goal.
Michael Duffy was next to come close, whipping a right-footed effort wide of Brendan Clarke’s post before Hoban was not far off again, putting a header just over the top.
The game was approaching half-time and the faithful were beginning to show signs of a little impatience when Dylan Connolly had a go at breaking the deadlock. But for him too there was only frustration as his beautifully struck volley, from Duffy’s cross, whistled just over the crossbar.
And then, in the way of these things in football — and in a sign of what was to come — right on the stroke of half-time it required a meticulously timed last-ditch tackle by Daniel Cleary to prevent Conor Clifford getting a clear run on goal as, capitalising on some sloppiness in the Dundalk defence, Pat’s suddenly threatened to turn the tables.
That’s precisely what they managed to do six minutes after the restart, Clifford drilling home through a crowded box after Kevin Toner’s header had kept alive Conan Byrne’s lofted free into the danger zone.
With anti-climax threatening for Dundalk, the crowd took it upon itself to try to lift The Town but with a disciplined Pat’s now happy to get everyone behind the ball and play on the break, the home side struggled to find a way through, as crosses missed their targets, passes were cut out, and runs ended up going down blind alleys.
But another mark of champions is to prevail even when not playing well and, cometh the final minute, cometh the man, Hoban popping up in the box to do what he does best, making the most of Patrick McEleney’s pass to break not only the visitors’ resistance but also the Premier Division record with what was his 26th goal of the campaign.
And, most of all, of course, it meant that the title was now back in Dundalk.
“We kept pushing and Pat has been getting a lot of late goals,” said an elated Stephen Kenny after the final whistle, as supporters invaded the pitch in celebration.
“He’s been fantastic for us this season. And that was a great way to win it.”
: Rogers, Gannon, Gartland, Cleary (Kelly 87), Massey, Shields, Connolly (Murray 66), Benson (Mountney 11), McEleney, Duffy, Hoban.
: B Clarke; Birmingham, Desmond, Leahy, Toner; Madden, Clifford (K Brennan 83), Lennon, C Byrne (N Byrne 61), R Brennan, Keegan.
: Robert Harvey