Dundalk were crowned champions of Ireland for the fifth time in six seasons on Monday night after seeing off Shamrock Rovers in a five-goal thriller at Oriel Park.
Starting the evening 12 points clear of the Hoops, Vinny Perth’s side knew that a win would seal the deal and Sean Hoare’s fourth goal of the season, a towering 28th-minute header, set them on their way before Robbie Benson popped up with a vital second in first-half injury time to send the natives crazy.
Rovers hauled themselves back into it when Aaron Greene ended Dundalk’s run of seven games without conceding a goal in the 55th minute but Michael Duffy’s stunning effort just four minutes later looked to have ended any hopes of a comeback.
Aaron McEneff set the cat amongst the pigeons when he found the bottom corner with 25 minutes to play but Dundalk saw it out to record their third win over Rovers this season and win the title with four games to spare.
Perth’s side found themselves 13 points adrift of the Hoops when they were beaten by Sligo Rovers on April 14th but they have responded with an unbeaten 23-game run worthy of champions to leave the rest in their wake.
With the EA Sports Cup already on the sideboard, all eyes will now turn to their FAI Cup semi-final with Sligo Rovers next Sunday as they aim to become just the second team in history to win a domestic treble.
The Lilywhites head coach sent what is arguably his strongest XI into the fray with Hoare, Dane Massey and Patrick McEleney all recalled after sitting out the 1–0 win over Waterford on Friday.
Rovers meet Bohemians in their own FAI Cup semi-final this Friday evening but suggestions that they might name an understrength side were dismissed when the teams were confirmed.
Jack Byrne, who was rated doubtful with an ankle injury, started while Aaron McEneff, Gary O’Neill and Ronan Finn were all recalled with the latter making his 400th league appearance in the unfamiliar position of right-back.
The visitors started well, penning Dundalk back with a high press, but they failed to test Gary Rogers with McEneff and Graham Burke sending attempts well off target.
The hosts took time to get to grips with things and Duffy will feel he should have done better with their opening sighting of goal in the 10th minute. Picked out by Chris Shields at the far post, the winger’s first-time effort flew across the face of goal and away to safety.
The game started to open up a bit after that and Burke failed to capitalise on a good opening after a superb pass by Jack Byrne picked him out. Roberto Lopes then fired over from close range after a vicious ball from Burke fizzed across the six-yard area.
Things began to get spicy just past the quarter-hour. Daniel Cleary left Gary O’Neill in a heap, sparking a bout of handbags which ended with Patrick Hoban and Burke following the Dundalk centre-back into referee Paul McLaughlin’s notebook.
Rovers were the architects of their own downfall in the 28th minute. Gary O’Neill’s slack pass led to a Dundalk corner and Duffy’s delivery was right on the money, allowing Hoare, who was criminally left unmarked by Lee Grace, the time to rise and power home an unstoppable header.
With McEleney and Duffy heavily involved, Dundalk attacked with verve and a good set-piece almost led to number two in the 40th minute but after being teed up nicely by Dane Massey, Benson was caught in two minds and the chance came to nothing.
He fared a lot better in stoppage time. After laying the ball off to Jamie McGrath, Benson, who broke his leg on the opening night of the season, continued his run into the penalty area and McEleney had the vision to pick him out, the midfielder arriving right on cue to steer a wonderful header past Mannus and leave Dundalk 45 minutes away from glory.
They went in search of a third goal in the opening stages of the second half with Duffy’s overhead kick flying just wide before Gary O’Neill tracked Benson brilliantly to stop him from pulling the trigger on a sublime McGrath pass.
Rovers dragged themselves back into it with 54 minutes played when Greene became the first opposition player to score a league goal at Oriel Park since May, arcing his run to perfection to apply the finishing touch to Sean Kavanagh’s superb pass.
Duffy brought the house down four minutes later with a goal of the season contender. Rogers and Massey started the move before McEleney showed great strength to hold O’Neill off and invited his fellow Derryman to hit. Hit he did, Duffy’s ferocious effort thundering past the helpless Mannus.
Dane Massey crashed an effort off the post minutes later as Dundalk went about putting it to bed but Rovers dampened the celebrations again in the 64th minute. Hoare’s rushed clearance went straight to Burke and he shifted the ball left for McEneff who found himself in oceans of space to pick his spot and stab the ball home.
The majority of the 3,634 in attendance were made to endure an anxious ending and the Rovers bench felt they had a good claim for a penalty waved away by McLaughlin in the 82nd minute when Hoare appeared to handle Byrne’s delivery.
Mannus got down well to push a Daniel Kelly drive wide of his post but the final act of a dramatic night came in injury time when Gary Rogers, who turns 38 on Wednesday, tipped a McEneff shot over the bar to seal title number 14 for the club.
DUNDALK FC: Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Daniel Cleary, Sean Hoare, Dane Massey; Chris Shields, Robbie Benson (Sean Murray 68); Jamie McGrath, Patrick McEleney (Daniel Kelly 78), Michael Duffy Patrick Hoban (Georgie Kelly 87). Subs not used: Aaron McCarey (GK), Brian Gartland, Dean Jarvis, Cameron Dummigan.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Alan Mannus; Ronan Finn, Roberto Lopes, Lee Grace, Daniel Lafferty; Gary O’Neill (Brandon Kavanagh 79), Aaron McEneff; Graham Burke (Dylan Watts 75), Jack Byrne, Sean Kavanagh; Aaron Greene. Subs not used: Leon Pohls (GK), Ethan Boyle, Greg Bolger, Neil Farrugia, Graham Cummins
REFEREE: Paul McLaughlin. ATTENDANCE: 3,634.
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