Niall Newberry reports from Oriel Park
Dundalk are on the verge of claiming their fourth SSE Airtricity League title in five seasons under Stephen Kenny thanks to a 3-2 win over Derry City at a packed Oriel Park on Tuesday night.
First half goals from Daniel Cleary, Patrick McEleney and Patrick Hoban had put Dundalk in cruise control, but a Dean Jarvis own goal and Ben Fisk strike late on made it a nervous finish for the Oriel Park faithful.
Amazingly, this was Dundalk’s 16th win from their last 17 outings in the league and this form, worthy of champions, has seen the Lilywhites move 12 points clear at the top with just four games to play.
Kenny made three changes from the side that all but sealed the championship against Cork City on Friday night with Daniel Cleary, Dean Jarvis and Jamie McGrath all coming into the starting eleven.
Derry, who have now lost five league matches on the bounce, were unchanged from their most recent defeat against Shamrock Rovers last Saturday as Kenny Shiels named just six substitutes.
It was the Candystripes that created the game’s first chances and they almost took the lead inside ten minutes when Gary Rogers rather uncharacteristically dropped the ball from a corner.
The veteran goalkeeper, who was celebrating his 37th birthday, made amends almost instantly however, producing a fine save from Aaron Splaine after John Mountney had half-cleared.
Dundalk took the lead in the 16th minute when the League of Ireland’s assist king, Michael Duffy, floated a free-kick into the box which was powered home by the head of defenderl Cleary.
Duffy provided yet another assist, his 21st of the season, four minutes later when he teed up fellow Derry native McEleney, who scored his first goal since returning to the club in the summer.
The Lilywhites were now on fire at this point and they almost added a third after a beautiful passage of play involving Sean Hoare, Jamie McGrath and McEleney resulted in Mountney shooting just wide.
Cries of 'champions of Ireland' and 'stand up for the champions' were now echoing throughout Oriel Park, a ground that has seen its share of spectacular moments over the course of this year.
Duffy has more often than not been at the centre of such moments and he almost tripled Dundalk’s lead just past the half-hour mark when his right-footed volley from 20 yards sailed agonisingly wide.
Dundalk did get their third of the night a minute before the interval when Patrick Hoban scored his 25th league goal of the season, cutting in from the left before curling an effort beyond Ger Doherty.
Hoban came close to getting his and Dundalk’s fourth after a sublime cross from the right by McEleney was met by the diving heading of the Loughrea native.
However, the Derry goalkeeper produced a world class fingertip save which guided the ball just onto the top of the crossbar.
Derry improved in the second period and grabbed themselves what appeared to be a consolation goal 20 minutes from time.
Rogers saved at the feet of Adrian Delap before the ball, rather fortuitously, rebounded off of the unfortunate Dean Jarvis, who couldn’t prevent the ball from trickling into his own net.
Canadian international Ben Fisk made it a nervy finish for Dundalk shortly after coming off the substitutes bench when he rounded Rogers before tapping into an empty net in the dying minutes.
Dundalk held on for three points that all but secure a 13th League of Ireland title for the club, and fourth in five seasons under Kenny, as Kevin McHattie was given a straight red card late on.
Dundalk: Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Daniel Cleary, Sean Hoare, Dean Jarvis; Chris Shields, Patrick McEleney (Ronan Murray 62); John Mountney (Dylan Connolly 62), Jamie McGrath, Michael Duffy; Patrick Hoban (Georgie Kelly 86).
Subs not used: Gabriel Sava (gk), Brian Gartland, Dane Massey, Robbie Benson.
Derry City: Ger Doherty; Jamie McDonagh, Eoin Toal, Darren Cole, Kevin McHattie; Aaron McEneff (Dean Shiels 46), Aaron Splaine; Adrian Delap (Ben Fisk 84), Rory Hale, Ally Roy (Nicky Low 46); Ronan Hale.
Subs not used: Eric Grimes (gk), Gavin Peers, Cathal Farren.
Sent off: Kevin McHattie (90+3).
Referee: Paul McLaughlin.
Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Michael Duffy (Dundalk).