Ronan McNamara reports from Oriel Park
Sean Murray’s first half goal was enough to give Dundalk a 1-0 win over champions elect Shamrock Rovers in a pulsating encounter at Oriel Park as the Lilywhites eased their relegation worries to move five points clear of Waterford in the relegation playoff spot with a game more played.
The Hoops remain nine points clear of St. Patrick’s Athletic at the summit of the Premier Division with seven matches remaining and now have played the same number of games as their title challengers.
The first half began in electric fashion as both sides had early penalty appeals turned down; first Patrick Hoban was played through by Cameron Dummigan and he went down under pressure from Lee Grace but referee Rob Harvey saw no need to award a penalty to the hosts in the opening minute.
Dundalk, unbeaten in their last five games, came flying out of the traps early and after some lovely combination play between Will Patching and Hoban, Michael Duffy cleverly flicked the ball to the onrushing Darragh Leahy whose low bullet was goal bound until Grace turned the ball over the bar.
It was Stephen Bradley’s sides’ turn to be left aghast by the referee when Aaron Greene did brilliantly to get to the end line and he appeared to be caught very late by Andy Boyle as he pulled the ball back to Richie Towell who could only drag his shot wide with the goal seemingly at his mercy.
After a frantic opening 15 minutes the game entered a lull as both sides were cancelling each other out until Murray broke the deadlock just after the half hour mark. Hoban slipped a delicious ball around the corner for the former Watford man and he made no mistake as he slotted the ball low past Alan Mannus without breaking stride to send a cloud of black and white smoke across Oriel.
In a mad goal mouth scramble Towell ended up missing two great opportunities to level affairs. After Barry Cotter’s cross was not dealt with by Dundalk stopper Peter Cherrie, the ball broke to Towell but the former Dundalk midfielder saw his effort blocked on the line before driving a half volley over the bar from 13 yards moments later.
Rovers were left bewildered by referee Harvey once more as Danny Mandroiu went down under a forceful challenge from Daniel Cleary in the area but no spot kick was forthcoming.
In a thrilling end to the half the champions really should have been level after Gary O’Neill skied his shot over the bar from 12 yards after Cherrie knocked Greene’s header back into the danger area.
Moments later the Dundalk ‘keeper produced a sensational save to tip Dylan Watts’ curling effort around the post before the interval.
The second half began in a much more pedestrian fashion compared to the rip roaring opening period with both sides struggling to carve out a meaningful opportunity.
Hoban went on a mazy run just short of the hour mark as he took the ball into the Rovers box but saw his cross partially blocked by Sean Hoare and Mannus needed to get down low to gather the ball.
Patching’s influence was growing in the game and he spread the ball out wide to Dummigan and his low cross was expertly turned over the bar by Grace with Hoban lurking behind him as the game entered the final 20 minutes.
The first shot in anger of the second half came in the 76th minute when Towell chipped a delicate ball to substitute Rory Gaffney, but the striker couldn’t keep his half volley down as it fizzed over the bar.
Dundalk could have put the game beyond doubt in the 83rd minute when Shamrock Rovers substitute Aidomo Emakhu was dispossessed on the edge of the Lilywhites box, Duffy broke away and when Hoban returned the ball to him his loose touch allowed Hoare to steal in and come away with the ball.
Substitute Sami Ben Amar replaced goalscorer Sean Murray and he almost had an instant impact as Dundalk countered through Sam Stanton who squared it to the sub only for him to blaze the ball high and wide.
In truth Rovers never threatened a late equaliser and Dundalk held on to extend their unbeaten run to six games in all competitions.
Dundalk: Peter Cherrie; Cameron Dummigan, Daniel Cleary, Andy Boyle (c), Darragh Leahy; Michael Duffy (Han Jeongwoo 90), Sean Murray (Sami Ben Amar 85), Will Patching (Mayowa Animasahun 90), Greg Sloggett, Sam Stanton; Patrick Hoban.
Subs not used: Cameron Yates, Alessio Abibi, Enda Douglas, Mark Hanratty, Ryan O'Kane, Ebuka Kwelele .
Booked: Daniel Cleary (35), Sam Stanton (90), Will Patching (90).
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Sean Hoare, Lee Grace, Sean Gannon; Gary O'Neill, Ronan Finn (c), Barry Cotter (Neil Farrugia 54), Dylan Watts; Richie Towell, Daniel Mandroiu, Aaron Greene (Aidomo Emakhu 81).
Subs not used: Leon Pohls, Sean Kavanagh, Joey O'Brien, Chris McCann, Rory Gaffney, Conan Noonan.
Booked: Daniel Mandroiu (90) .
Referee: Robert Harvey.
Extratime.com player of the match: Sean Murray (Dundalk)