Two late goals from Chris Turner and Billy Dennehy completed a remarkable comeback by Shamrock Rovers at Tallaght Stadium on Tuesday night. Two goals from teenager Mark Griffin had given Dundalk a lead that they held until the 79th minute, but what seemed a certain three points for Ian Foster’s side were snatched away right at the death.
The opening stages saw Rovers perform reasonably well as Gary O’Neill directed one header wide on two minutes and bounced another into the turf and over the bar six minutes later.
But Dundalk were never overawed and they caused the home side problems from the start with Ross Gaynor a danger on the left and Mark Griffin threatening through the middle from the start.
Rovers played just two in central midfield and never controlled the centre of the park in the manner that they have in recent games. For every half chance created in the Dundalk box, the Louth side created another at the opposite end and on 23 minutes Keith Ward slipped a diagonal pass to Griffin who calmly slipped the ball past Mannus for the opener.
Five minutes later Gary McCabe flashed a 30 yard shot outside Peter Cherrie’s right hand post but moments later no less than three Dundalk players sprung the offside trap and it took a last ditch clearance from Mannus to deny Daniel Kearns.
Gary Twigg did have the ball in the Dundalk net on 36 minutes but he was flagged off-side. His timing to meet Dennehys floated free kick at the back post was perfect but a touch from O’Neill as the ball came through left him stranded behind the last defender and his bundled effort was cancelled out.
The second half saw the visitors strengthen their hold on the game as the Rovers midfield continued to struggle. Griffin should have added a second after 48 minutes when he was played in by Greg Bolger. He beat Dan Murray inside the box but rolled a weak shot straight at Mannus from eight yards.
However, on the hour mark, Griffin made amends, rising highest to meet a Ross Gaynor free kick and directing a simple header past Mannus from close in. It was a lead that was thoroughly deserved and though Rovers did manage to produce some pressure they never looked like getting the goals that they needed to salvage something from the game.
Gary McCabe was, yet again, a shining light for the Hoops but there was too little support across the centre for Rovers to achieve any kind of genuine domination. Chris Turner entered the fray on 64 minutes, a move that would pay dividends for Michael O’Neill’s men.
Ken Oman powered a header past Cherrie’s near post from a corner and McCabe flung a shot wide from distance. Then McCabe was denied from close in by an heroic block from Nathan Murphy but on 79 minutes the league leaders made the breakthrough.
Cherrie punched a speculative cross out of his box but it fell to Turner 20 yards out who hit it on the half volley and sent the ball skidding through a gap and into the unguarded net. Moments later Cherrie pulled off a remarkable save from a well placed shot by Ken Oman but still Dundalk looked to have enough about them to hold on for three points.
Rovers poured forward as best they could and, credit where it’s due, they never lost hope. The Rovers faithful had started to leave when, two minutes into added time, Pat Sullivan sent a desperate ball forwards and Billy Dennehy got on the end of it to head the ball over the stranded Peter Cherrie.
The reaction on the pitch and in the stands was ecstatic and it was hard not to feel for Ian Foster, head in hands on the touchline. By no stretch of the imagination was this an impressive performance by the reigning champions but the point gained here was the kind of portentious achievement that may yet prove crucial.
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Pat Sullivan, Ken Oman, Dan Murray (Craig Sives, 55), Enda Stevens; Gary McCabe,Stephen O’Donnell (Chris Turner, 64), Ronan Finn, Billy Dennehy; Gary Twigg (Karl Sheppard, 68), Gary O’Neill.
Subs not used: Ryan Thompson, Conor McCormack, Stephen Rice, Ciaran Kilduff.
Bookings: Twigg (41), Oman (49), Sullivan (66), Stevens (93).
Dundalk: Peter Cherrie; Simon Madden, Colin Hawkins, Dean Bennett, Nathan Murphy; Daniel Kearns, Greg Bolger, Mark Quigley, Keith Ward, Ross Gaynor; Mark Griffin.
Subs not used: Paul Murphy, Shane Guthrie, Stephen Maher, Philip Duffy, Chris Kerr, Johnny Breen.
Bookings: Griffin (35), Hawkins (76), Bolger (81).
Referee: Alan Kelly.
Attendance: 2,500 (estimate).
extratime.ie Man of the Match: Mark Griffin.