Cork City 0 Dundalk 1: Class usually tells in the end, and it did again at the Aviva Stadium yesterday when the League of Ireland’s best player, Richie Towell, scored the goal which gave the League of Ireland’s best team, Dundalk, the 2015 FAI Cup — and, with it, the third double in the club’s history.
For Cork City, having pushed the final all the way to extra-time, it meant more heartbreak at the hands of Stephen Kenny’s team who relegated them to the silver medal position in the cup having already done so twice in succession in the league.
There might not have been much in it on the scoreboard yesterday but, over two seasons, that kind of record tells its own tale of the Lilywhites’ gold-plated superiority, not just over John Caulfield’s men, but every other side in the domestic game.
That they deserved this cup triumph, hard-earned though it was against a resolute Cork side, is beyond doubt.
The morning’s torrential rain had cleared just in time for kick off but there was still a strong wind swirling around the Aviva Stadium as a crowd of 25,103 saw City create the game’s first hint of an opening, with Mark O’Sullivan’s tame header comfortably saved by Gary Rogers, before Dundalk responded at the other end as Ronan Finn flashed an effort narrowly wide of Mark McNulty’s far post.
Keeping possession in their usual assured fashion, Dundalk dominated the ball in the first 20 minutes, the contrast offered in styles, as white and black played green, reminiscent of watching Ireland against Germany at this venue last month.
But, as we discovered that night, there’s more than one way to win a football match and though there was nothing sophisticated about Darren Dennehy repeatedly seeking the head of the ever willing Mark O’Sullivan with long balls from the back, Cork gradually grew into the contest.
In the 20th minute, a City corner had Rogers flapping under pressure on his line and three minutes later, from another corner, Karl Sheppard headed wide at the far post. City were by now proving effective at disrupting Dundalk’s rhythm, closing them down high up the pitch and forcing uncharacteristic errors.
Billy Dennehy was beginning to carry a threat up the right and Cork were also bringing a real physical edge to proceedings, with Stephen Kenny obliged to take a chance on skipper Stephen O’Donnell’s fitness coming up to half-time — a gamble that would certainly pay off in the end — when Sean Gannon was forced off after being caught heavily on the ankle by Garry Buckley.
But, in a game of limited goalmouth action, it was Dundalk who twice threatened to break the deadlock right after the resumption, McNulty first tipping a David McMillan shot over the top, before the striker’s heavy first touch again allowed the Cork keeper the opportunity to deny him a shot on target.
For City, Garry Buckley skilfully worked himself into a shooting position only to drag his effort harmlessly wide, as both sides struggled to find a cutting edge.
In the 59th minute, one Irish international replaced another for Cork, Colin Healy coming on for Liam Miller, but it was Dundalk’s own feted midfielder Richie Towell who looked like he might have the next big say, McNulty doing well to get down and hold his drive from outside the box.
And the Cork keeper was in the right place at the right time soon after, ensuring that a trademark storming run into the box by Daryl Horgan came to nought for Dundalk.
That the game was still scoreless at the end of normal time was a tribute in large measure to the solidity of the City defence, which was superbly marshalled by Alan Bennett in the face of a team which, only one week before, had smashed the record for goals scored in the League of Ireland.
The Lilywhites are also, by common consent, the fittest team in the league which meant they would have been favourites to finish the stronger of the two sides in extra time.
And so it proved, as the additional 30 minutes saw a wholesale reversion to the pattern of the game’s opening phase with Dundalk dominating the ball yet still unable to break down their opponents, who had to replace Karl Sheppard with Dan Murray as the huge physical effort began to take its toll.
By no means a classic but compelling in the way that only a cup final balanced on a knife-edge can be, the game was finally decided in the 107th minute by Towell’s 29th goal of the season in all competitions.
Former City man Horgan was the architect, his acceleration up the left and into the box leaving three green shirts trailing in his wake before he pulled the ball back across the face of the penalty area for Dundalk’s hit-man to take one touch and then find the back of the net with a left-footed drive.
Before the end, Cork had a penalty shout for a possible handball against Andy Boyle but it was one made altogether more in hope than expectation, as the champions saw home the game, and their season, in the best possible way.
Cork City subs: Colin Healy for Liam Miller (59); Danny Morrissey for Mark O’Sullivan (79); Dan Murray for Karl Sheppard (101)
Subs for Dundalk: Stephen O’Donnell for Sean Gannon (42); Ciaran Kilduff for David McMillan (70); John Mountney for Darren Meenan (77)
Referee: D McKeown
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved