Dundalk were held to a 1-1 draw by a spirited Sligo Rovers team as the Lilywhites’ defence of their SSE Airtricity League Premier Division crown began on Friday night at Oriel Park.
Jack Keaney’s spectacular goal from a free-kick two minutes before half-time was cancelled out by an excellent strike by new signing Sean Murray four minutes after the start of the second period.
In what has been a winter of change for Dundalk and Sligo, this fixture marked the dawn of a new era for both clubs as Vinny Perth and Liam Buckley took charge of their respective clubs for the first time in the league.
Continuity was the first word used by Perth in his programme notes and Dundalk’s new head coach demonstrated that by starting with the exact team that won the FAI Cup last November, and indeed the President’s Cup last weekend.
Buckley handed full debuts to four of his new recruits with John Dunleavy, Dante Leverock, Daryl Fordyce and Jamaican international striker Romeo Parkes all taking their place in the starting XI.
Last season’s double-winners started brightly and Michael Duffy saw his free-kick deflected out for a corner which he delivered as Brian Gartland’s header forced the first save of many by Edward McGinty.
Dundalk were awarded a penalty shortly after that when Robbie Benson had to be stretchered off as a result of a foul by McGinty, who subsequently saved Patrick Hoban’s spot-kick for the second time in two seasons.
The Sligo goalkeeper was having a busy night and he saved again after Patrick McEleney’s through ball found Hoban, but he was foiled once more by McGinty, who saved his shot from a tight angle.
The Bit O’Red defended superbly for the most part but did create some openings of their own with left-back Regan Donelan’s rasping shot from outside the box flying into the arms of Gary Rogers.
One of Dundalk’s five new signings, Murray, came agonisingly close to putting the Lilywhites in front but his downward header bounced up and over the bar following a good cross from Dane Massey.
Murray, who replaced the injured Benson, played a beautiful cross-field pass which was met by the head of Hoban, who produced a world-class save out of the magnificent McGinty in the Sligo goal.
McGinty was left helpless and rooted to his spot on 41 minutes however, when McEleney’s curling free-kick attempt clipped off the outside of the post, much to the relief of the 19-year-old ‘keeper.
Oriel Park was stunned into silence two minutes before the break when Keaney’s audacious free-kick from distance crept in past Rogers’ right-hand post to send the travelling support into raptures.
Sligo, still buoyed by that goal, came close to doubling their advantage three minutes after the restart when captain Kyle McFadden, unmarked, headed straight at Rogers from a corner.
Dundalk levelled just one minute later when the impressive Murray rifled a shot into the bottom corner after some wonderful build-up play from Hoban and Duffy as Oriel saluted its latest hero.
Hoban – last season’s top scorer in the Premier Division with 29 goals – teased and tormented the Sligo defence before unleashing a shot from the edge of the box that sailed narrowly over the bar.
Time was running out for the hosts but Murray almost got his and Dundalk’s second, getting on the end of McEleney’s cross, but the outstanding McGinty was equal to the former Watford man’s shot.
With just five minutes remaining, there was chances at either end as Liam Kerrigan went close for Sligo before substitute Georgie Kelly headed narrowly over from a Massey cross.
Try as they might, the Lilywhites couldn’t force what would have been a certain winner in the closing stages and the Perth era began just as the Stephen Kenny one did, with a draw in the league at Oriel.
Dundalk: Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Brian Gartland, Sean Hoare, Dane Massey; Chris Shields, Robbie Benson (Sean Murray 11); John Mountney (Daniel Kelly 74), Patrick McEleney (Georgie Kelly 83), Michael Duffy; Patrick Hoban.
Subs not used: Aaron McCarey (gk), Stephen Folan, Daniel Cleary, Dean Jarvis.
Booked: Sean Gannon (64), Patrick McEleney (69).
Sligo Rovers: Edward McGinty; John Dunleavy, Dante Leverock, John Mahon, Regan Donelon; Kyle McFadden, Jack Keaney; Kris Twardek, Daryl Fordyce (Niall Morahan 83), Liam Kerrigan (Ronan Coughlan 87); Romeo Parkes.
Subs not used: Mitchell Beeney (gk), Lewis Banks, Scott Lynch, John Russell, James McGrath.
Booked: Jack Keaney (28), Kyle McFadden (40), Dante Leverock (61), Liam Kerrigan (74).
Referee: Robert Harvey.
Attendance: 3,347 (official).
Extratime.ie Man of the Match: Edward McGinty (Sligo Rovers).