Twelve months is a long time in football – just ask any of the large travelling contingent at the UCD Bowl on Friday evening. This time last year, the Lilywhites were staring down the barrel of relegation as the club risked becoming another to fold in the face of financial adversity. However, their sixth league victory on the bounce, a hard-fought 2-0 win over UCD in Belfield, has fired them top of the Airtricity League with just seven games left.
Second-half goals from Pat Hoban and Richie Towell were enough to see off struggling UCD after substitute Michael Kelly was dismissed just four minutes after replacing Mick Leahy.
Having had the benefit of a week off to rest and recuperate ahead of a potentially nail-biting relegation dogfight, Martin Russell had the luxury of naming the same side that overcome Limerick a fortnight ago but were quickly on the backfoot as a confident and determined Dundalk side started brightly.
It was hardly surprising that the Lilywhites enjoyed the majority of the possession in the opening exchanges given their impressive record away from home this season - one of the reasons why they find themselves in a lofty position.
The addition of Richie Towell to the Oriel Park ranks has to be considered as the signing of the season and the midfielder was quick to stamp his authority in the game during an often scrappy opening quarter. A fine team move created time and space for Towell on the right but he narrowly dragged his effort wide without testing Ger Barron.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic however, at the other end Craig Walsh forced Peter Cherrie into action for the first time as the midfielder’s deflected effort from range had the ‘keeper back pedalling before palming it over the bar.
Spurred on by a noisy away support, Dundalk couldn’t convert their advantage as they found Barron in inspired form. Firstly, the shot stopper denied former Student Darren Meenan and then Andy Boyle before brilliantly tipping Dane Massey’s goalbound header over.
The interval did little to disrupt the flow of the game as Kenny’s charges continued to lay siege to the UCD goal but found it difficult to break down a resolute wall of blue shirts. Pat Hoban evaded the attention of Mick Leahy but couldn’t direct his effort from a tight angle on target before Stephen O’Donnell tried his luck from long-range, only to see his rasping drive fly just wide of the upright.
The game’s turning point came just before the hour mark as the hosts lost their captain through injury. What followed was a bizarre set of events which swung the game heavily in the visitors’ favour.
Kelly, making just his fourth appearance of the season, was cautioned by referee Tomas Connolly for entering the field of play prematurely as Leahy hobbled off before he received his marching orders just four minutes later for .
The void left by Leahy’s replacement was evident despite Martin Russell’s best efforts to nullify the numerical disadvantage as white shirts surged forward at every opportunity. Some last ditch defending denied Meenan after a mazy run from the winger before Barron produced another outstanding stop, this time to deny O’Donnell with the majority expecting the net to bulge.
With Chris Shields playing the holding role on front of the back four and the opposition hardly providing an attacking threat, O’Donnell went forward at every opportunity and it was the midfielder’s cross which finally unlocked the UCD rearguard.
It is the sign of a top striker when he has hardly had a sight of goal before slotting home his first real chance, that’s exactly what Hoban did as he swept home the low cross from the left, sending those who travelled from Louth into raptures.
Towell then ensured all three points with a moment of individual brilliance with ten minutes remaining as he curled home from the edge of the area with the outside of his boot when UCD failed to clear the initial danger.
UCD: Ger Barron; Gareth Matthews, Mick Leahy (Michael Kelly 57), Tomas Boyle, David O’Connor; Samir Belhout (Cillian Morrison 55), Robbie Creevy, Craig Walsh (Barry McCabe 87), Sean Russell; Robbie Benson; Dean Clarke.
Subs not used: Mark McGinley, Mark Langtry, Gary Burke, Tyrone McNelis.
Bookings: M Kelly (57)
Sending Off: M Kelly (61)
Dundalk: Peter Cherrie; Mark Rossister, Andy Boyle, Brian Gartland, Dane Massey (Jordan Keegan 90); Chris Shields, Stephen O’Donnell, Richie Towell, Darren Meenan; Kurtis Byrne (Tiarnan Mulvenna 80), Patrick Hoban (Vinny Faherty 87).
Subs not used: Aaron Shanahan, John Sullivan, John Dillon, Francis McCaffrey.
Bookings: Hoban (28), S O’Donnell (48), Massey (89).
Referee: Tomas Connolly.
Extratime.ie Man of the Match: Stephen O’Donnell (Dundalk)