Dundalk 0 Cork City 3: Here at Oriel Park, on a balmy evening on the brink of the summer break, was a tantalising meeting between this season’s unstoppable force and the last three seasons’ immovable object.
Something had to give — and it wasn’t Cork City’s unbeaten record.
As the irrepressible Sean Maguire scored three times to bring his total to 16 in the league, there was an inescapable sense of the changing of the guard, that what a crowd of 3,643 was witnessing was champions Dundalk making way for champions elect Cork City.
Afterwards, John Caulfield expressed his delight at the performance and the result.
“People might have felt we were coming for a draw but I always felt we’d score goals,” he said. “We could have been one-up after 20 seconds, Seanie had a glorious chance.”
On the striker’s eventual hat-trick, the City boss said: “It was a special hat-trick. The first one was a classic City move this year, intricate play and then Shep pulls it back and Seanie sticks it away. The second one was a header and for the third he pounces on a mistake at the back. A typical Seanie hat-trick.
“He’s been brilliant but all the lads have. We’re only half way there but in the first half of the season we’ve been phenomenal. It was a great three points and now we recharge and then get going again when we come back.”
On the prospect of losing Maguire in the transfer market, Caulfield said: “It is a situation where things will develop within the next week or 10 days. The whole Seanie thing is close (to happening). For us we have to see what we can get out of it, in terms of time.
“The one thing I will say about him is that I have rarely come across a player with such mental strength. The speculation about his future has been the subject of so much discussion yet he has not been sidetracked. He is so focused.”
Maguire himself commented: “It’s my first senior league hat-trick for Cork City and no better place to do it.”
As to his future, Maguire said: “There are a lot of options, I’ll probably find out in the next couple of days or weeks but I’m focused on Cork City at the moment.”
With nearly half the season still ahead, Caulfield’s rampaging Rebels are a full 18 points clear of their nearest rivals, and it will surely take the most improbable sequence of events between now and October for the 2017 title not to end up in Turner’s Cross.
Both sides showed just one change from their last outings, Alan Bennett replacing Greg Bolger from the Cork City side which beat Shamrock Rovers 4-1 and Robbie Benson starting instead of Stephen O’Donnell, who he had replaced from off the bench in Dundalk’s 2-0 victory over St Patrick’s Athletic.
The game got off to a breathless start. After seven seconds Maguire threatened to haunt his old club but the league’s leading striker, getting on the end of a Karl Sheppard cross from the right, rippled the wrong side of the net as Cork looked to get off to a flyer.
Then it was Dundalk’s turn to have a go but, when John Dunleavy’s weak clearing header dropped at David McMillan’s feet just outside the box, the striker couldn’t keep his low drive on target.
That signalled the beginning of a period of dominance of possession by the home side, as they got their familiar passing game going, with Patrick McEleney the orchestrator in chief.
But, as we know, this Cork side are no slouches with the ball at their feet either and, in the 19th minute, they found the clinical finish which Dundalk, for all their promising work, had lacked.
And with a seeming inevitability, it was Maguire who supplied the killer touch for his 14th goal in the league and fifth against Dundalk since leaving the club, after Sheppard fizzed a low ball across goal after good work in the build-up by Stephen Dooley.
With Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane looking on, it was another reminder from Maguire of why so many have been calling for him to receive international recognition. Less eye-catching but no less valuable for Cork was the all-action, all-areas work of Conor McCormack who, at one point, chased McEleney half the length of the pitch and managed to put him off his shot, as Dundalk threatened on the counter-attack.
On the half hour, Maguire came close to doubling his and Cork’s lead but, for once, his drilled effort — from a fine Jimmy Keohane ball pulled back from the endline — narrowly failed to find the target.
With Dundalk’s confidence rattled and, much to the frustration of the home support, mistakes creeping into their play as the green shirts were quick to close dow space. The visitors were looking full value for their half-time lead.
But they almost paid for a lapse in concentration right on the half-time whistle as, from a Michael Duffy corner, the previously rock solid defence completely lost track of Dane Massey. But the Lilywhites skipper, despite being offered a free run and header directly in front of goal, failed to find the proper contact and his effort drifted harmlessly wide of Mark McNulty’s far post.
Early in the second half, Michael Duffy wasted another good opportunity to bring the champions level. But even though Dundalk continued to see more of the ball, the work rate of the Cork team, individually and as a collective, meant Mark McNulty only had to make his first save of real significance as late as the 66th minute, when he turned Robbie Benson’s well-struck shot away for a corner.
And then, in the 70th minute, it was two for Cork and two for Maguire. Opportunistically, Dunleavy took a quick throw on the right against the back of his team mate Sheppard and, from the rebound, the City captain curled a left-footed cross into the box which Maguire, getting across his marker, headed home.
In time added on, the striker rubbed salt in his former club’s wounds and claimed his hat-trick, taking advantage of a mis-kick by Dane Massey to finish with composure.
There was just no stopping Maguire And, it seems, there’s no stopping Cork City either.
Rogers Gannon, Barrett, Vemmelund, Massey Shields (O’Donnell 67), Benson Duffy (Kilduff 74), McEleney, McGrath (Stewart 54); McMillan.
McNulty, Dunleavy, Bennett, Delaney, O’Connor, Keohane, McCormack, Morrissey (Bolger 83), Dooley (Griffin 75), Sheppard (Beattie 79), Maguire.
Paul McLaughlin (Donegal).
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