REPORT | Cheerio, four-in-a-row: Dundalk FC outfought and outplayed in Tallaght
SSE Airtricity League | Shamrock Rovers 2–1 Dundalk FC
Gavin McLaughlin reports from Tallaght Stadium
Dundalk FC’s title hopes were all but killed off in Tallaght Stadium on Friday night as goals from Ronan Finn and David McAllister condemned the champions to their fifth defeat in 12 matches.
After losing to bottom of the table Galway United a week earlier, Stephen Kenny and his players knew that three points were essential if they were to have any realistic chance of catching runaway league leaders Cork City.
Forty minutes in, those hopes had faded into the south Dublin sky as a disjointed, disorganised and disinterested — has that ever been said before in the Kenny era — group of Dundalk players folded under pressure.
‘Cheerio, four-in-a-row’ rang out around the stands. Fifteen points adrift after just 12 games, it will take something really monumental from Dundalk now to make the Rovers fans eat those words come October.
Kenny reacted to last week’s defeat in Galway by making three changes. Conor Clifford got the nod ahead of Chris Shields in the middle of the park while John Mountney started in place of Jamie McGrath.
The big news, however, was the absence of Brian Gartland at the heart of the back four, a back injury seeing the 30-year-old named on the bench. Paddy Barrett partnered Sean Hoare in the centre of defence with Niclas Vemmelund at right-back.
Rovers were skippered by Finn and Darren Meenan also lined out against their old employers but another Dundalk old-boy, Michael O’Connor, had to watch from the stands.
Finn was involved right from the kick-off, surging into the Dundalk box to force Barrett into conceding a fruitless corner inside the opening 15 seconds. It was a glimpse of what was to come.
It took just three minutes for the first flashpoint to arrive, Rovers striker Gary Shaw booked by referee Rob Rogers for leaving Barrett in a heap. Trevor Clarke followed him six minutes later, hauling Mountney back after Gary Rogers dealt with a difficult Burke free-kick and set the Mayo man on his way with a swift kick out.
The first goal was always going to be hugely important and Rovers fans in the main stand thought their side had got it in the 11th minute when McAllister’s cracking half-volley flew goalwards only to hit the stanchion behind the net.
Dundalk responded at the other end with Michael Duffy forcing Chencinski to tip a free over the bar after Clifford was fouled in a central area, 25 yards from goal.
Rovers, however, looked the more likely, and the breakthrough arrived in the 17th minute. Somewhat, inevitably, it was the end product of a move involving two ex-Dundalk players.
Former Lilywhites skipper Simon Madden broke on the right and his cutback was controlled and diverted across Rogers by the outside of Finn’s right-boot, much to the delight of the home support.
Stephen Bradley’s side continued to set the tempo by pressing hard in every area and they should have pulled further in front in the 28th minute when Shaw located Burke in front of goal but his poor header hit Vemmelund and was cleared to safety.
Dundalk lacked fluidity in the final third but Clifford had Tomer Chencinski scrambling backwards a minute later with a well-hit effort that just cleared the Rovers crossbar.
The champions were dealt a big blow on the half hour when captain Stephen O’Donnell — who also limped off in the game between the sides at Oriel Park on the opening night of the season — was withdrawn after suffering the ill effects of a clash of heads minutes earlier. He was replaced by Shields.
With Patrick McEleney out of sorts, Dundalk looked bereft of some invention in the final third again and although Duffy had a snapshot that was gathered by the Rovers goalkeeper, it proved to be a false dawn as the natives finished the half in the ascendancy.
Sensing real concern in the Lilywhites back four, Rovers looked a real threat when they went forward and Dane Massey had to make a fantastic last ditch tackle to stop Burke from making it 2–0 after Dundalk were exposed again.
The Dundalk left-back undid all his good work two minutes later, though, when he completely lost the run of McAllister who met a Burke corner to head past the helpless Rogers and punish Dundalk for their shambolic defending.
Kenny moved to three at the back in the second-half — something that has rarely been seen in his four and a half year tenure at the club — and although it offered a bit more stability, it didn’t put an end to a catalogue of unforced errors from Vemmelund and Sean Hoare, both of whom will be keen to eradicate this game from their memory.
With their supporters revelling in Dundalk’s misfortune, Rovers continued to boss things and Rogers had to make a brilliant save to keep Shaw’s stunning overhead kick from making it 3–0.
Two penalty appeals, one for handball, and one for a push on McEleney were ignored by the referee and frustration started to get the better of those in white shirts with Barrett sparking a melee between both sets of players for a foul on Finn in the 74th minute.
It proved to be a rare showing of grit from Dundalk and although Vemmelund pulled one back in stoppage time, guiding a free-kick over Chencinski after Meenan was sent off for picking up a second yellow card, the Lilywhites went out, not with a bang, but a whimper.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Tomer Chencinski; Simon Madden, Dave Webster, Roberto Lopes, Luke Byrne; Darren Meenan, Ronan Finn, David McAllister (Sam Bone 90), Trevor Clarke; Graham Burke (Brandon Miele 80), Gary Shaw (Sean Boyd 80). Subs not used: Daniel Devine, Dean Dillon, James Doona, Kevin Horgan (GK).
DUNDALK FC: Gary Rogers; Niclas Vemmelund, Sean Hoare, Paddy Barrett, Dane Massey; Conor Clifford (Ciaran Kilduff 71), Stephen O’Donnell (Chris Shields 33); John Mountney, Patrick McEleney, Michael Duffy; David McMillan (Thomas Stewart 80). Subs not used: Brian Gartland, Jamie McGrath, Shane Grimes, Gabriel Sava (GK).
REFEREE: Rob Rogers.