DFC | Midfield problems hurt Dundalk again as disjointed Lilywhites see treble dream ended on penalties

Dundalk FC 1–1 Shamrock Rovers
AET Shamrock Rovers win 4–2 on penalties
Extra.ie FAI Cup Final 2019

In an era of spin and bullshit, Vinny Perth is refreshingly honest when it comes to speaking to the media and he was bang on the money again with his assessment of Sunday’s FAI Cup final defeat to Shamrock Rovers.

It may have been the first weekend in November but Dundalk’s performance at the Aviva Stadium bore all the hallmarks of one of those frustrating, difficult nights back in the spring when they stuttered and struggled to find any rhythm.

With the suspended Chris Shields — the heartbeat of the side — and the injured Patrick McEleney sitting helpless, kicking their heels in frustration in the stand, it was no surprise that the champions just didn’t look right across a tense 120 minutes of football.

“We weren’t at our best from an attacking point of view,” said Perth. “We’ve been decimated with injuries in the centre of midfield all season and if you wanted to sum our season up, you just have to look at what happened out there today.”

With an unfamiliar looking trio of Sean Murray, Robbie Benson and Sean Hoare struggling to get to grips with things, Rovers enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges with Aaron Greene flashing a drive across the face of goal after being picked out by Jack Byrne’s pass. Seconds later, Daniel Cleary was almost punished for dilly-dallying but Ronan Finn was unable to meet Greene’s square ball.

Murray started well for Dundalk, breaking the lines with a couple of encouraging runs in the opening 10 minutes. He also had a clear sighting of goal in the 57th minute, side-footing weakly at Mannus after a lay-off from Hoban left him with a big target to aim at. As things wore on, though, he faded into the shadows and for the 15th time this season he was replaced with Daniel Kelly coming on with just over an hour played.

“Sean struggled again today,” said Perth afterwards. “He hasn’t been able to get 90 minutes for different reasons. We’ve been very close to getting him fit but it’s been a struggle.”

In truth, Dundalk looked bereft of leaders in the most important sector. Jamie McGrath, who was shunted to the right-wing, worked hard but failed to exert any real influence on things while afterwards, Perth disclosed that Benson’s ‘legs had gone’ in extra-time.

Hoare is a brilliant defender but nothing more than a stop-gap in midfield and although Brian Gartland played a captain’s role and was Dundalk’s man of the match for the second year in a row, the knock-on effect of playing Daniel Cleary as the left-sided centre-back meant that he was reluctant to break forward and deliver the kind of passes that have become a real asset this season.

Jordan Flores did make an impressive late cameo and could be real asset next season if his body allows it but the loss of numbers, and quality, in the middle of the park has hurt Dundalk badly on big occasions this season. With that in mind, it’s no surprise to see the likes of Derry City midfielder Greg Sloggett, who was at the game yesterday, heavily linked with a move to Oriel Park.

“There are areas of real improvement that we can make to the squad,” acknowledged Perth. “I’ve said that from the get-go. I’ve spent the last month with Mike Treacy doing bits around the club and we’re very close to fixing a couple of issues. If everybody was fit, it wouldn’t have been as big an issue but there’s no doubt midfield is one of those areas.”

Set-pieces looked Dundalk’s best route to goal and Gartland forced Mannus into a neat save with a towering header at the far post in the 38th minute before Cleary hit the side netting in stoppage time at the end of a forgettable half.

The game threatened to open up a bit in the opening stages of the second with Murray’s chance the best on either side but the quality levels dipped again as referee Derek Tomney, after a patient start, it must be said, started to brandish the yellow cards.

The match officials missed it but Gary Rogers made a stunning save to deny Graham Burke in the 73rd minute and extra-time looked on the cards as both teams cancelled each other.

The 33,111 in attendance were unaware of the late, late show that was about to unfold in front of them and Dundalk’s treble dream look dead and buried when the excellent Aaron McEneff swept an 88th-minute penalty past Rogers after the veteran goalkeeper was penalised for taking Greene down in the box.

With the writing seemingly on the wall, a number of Dundalk supporters headed for the exits but they were forced to turn back on their heels by the ecstatic cheer that followed Michael Duffy’s stunning 91st-minute strike that took things to extra-time.

“It was the first bit of magic that we produced in that area, really,” said a frustrated Perth.”We had a couple of half-chances as the game went on and a couple from set-pieces but I don’t think both teams created enough chances to win it.”

The feeling inside the ground was that the momentum would see Dundalk over the line in extra time but Mannus made a brilliant save to keep out their only chance of note in the last of the additional 30 minutes that followed, the Northern Ireland ‘keeper pushing Georgie Kelly’s goalbound effort away to safety.

Dundalk found themselves on the back foot when the unlucky Duffy saw his penalty crash back off the bar in the shootout and when Cleary, with a cacophony of jeers ringing in his ears, saw his effort brilliantly saved by Mannus, Rovers’ 32-year end wait for glory was all but over and Gary O’Neill sealed it, the Kerryman’s penalty leaving Perth and his players a kick of the ball away from a treble and immortality.

“If you are going to win a treble you need to have a bit of luck and it just didn’t go our way today,” he said afterwards. “Only the great Jim McLaughlin has won a treble and, I can live with that. It has been a wonderful season for this club. Today is not a season-defining moment, it’s just one of those things that didn’t go our way.”

DUNDALK FC: Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Brian Gartland, Daniel Cleary, Dane Massey; Robbie Benson (John Mountney 111), Sean Hoare (Georgie Kelly 90); Jamie McGrath, Sean Murray (Daniel Kelly 61), Michael Duffy; Patrick Hoban (Jordan Flores 100). Subs not used: Aaron McCarey (GK), Dean Jarvis, Andy Boyle.

SHAMROCK ROVERS: Alan Mannus; Ronan Finn, Joey O’Brien, Roberto Lopes, Lee Grace, Sean Kavanagh (Neil Farrugia 68); Aaron McEneff, Jack Byrne, Gary O’Neill, Graham Burke (Greg Bolger 90); Aaron Greene (Daniel Lafferty 111). Subs not used: Kian Clarke (GK), Dylan Watts, Thomas Oluwa, Brandon Kavanagh.

REFEREE: Derek Tomney. ATTENDANCE: 33,111.

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