Niall Newberry reports from Oriel Park
Dundalk were crowned SSE Airtricity League champions for the fourth time in five years following a last-gasp 1-1 draw with St Patrick’s Athletic at what was a celebratory Oriel Park on Friday night.
Patrick Hoban’s 90th minute equaliser cancelled out Conor Clifford’s opening goal for the visitors as Stephen Kenny’s side sealed a 13th league championship of its history in the most dramatic fashion.
‘Champions of Ireland’ echoed around Oriel Park at the full-time whistle in what were joyous scenes at the famous old ground, as the majority of the home support invaded the pitch.
It’s been a magnificent season for Dundalk, who have won a remarkable 25 matches since a scoreless draw with Bray Wanderers on the opening night of the season, which had sparked much doubt about this team.
Buoyed by a vociferous home support, Dundalk came close to taking a third-minute lead when Robbie Benson and Patrick McEleney both crashed their efforts off the crossbar in quick succession.
Celebratory as it was, this match was something of a slow burner and an early injury to Benson didn’t help matters before Michael Duffy curled an effort just over the bar from 25 yards.
Chances were few and far between throughout the first half of this encounter, but Hoban went close once more when he headed over following a lovely floated cross from the left by Dane Massey.
Next to try their luck were John Mountney, who had replaced the injured Benson, and Sean Gannon, who both fired their efforts well over the bar from distance as Oriel became increasingly subdued.
The hosts went agonisingly close to taking the lead four minutes before the half-time interval when Dylan Connolly volleyed inches over the top after a move which had involved Massey and Mountney.
The visitors could have easily taken a shock lead in first half stoppage time were it not for some excellent defending by Daniel Cleary, whose initial misplaced pass had put Jake Keegan through on goal.
However, the former Liverpool defender got back excellently to dispossess the American forward, who was about to square for the awaiting Conan Byrne, who surely would have put St. Pat’s in front.
The Saints had lost seven of their previous eight league visits to Oriel, but took a shock lead seven minutes after the restart when Conan Byrne’s free-kick was nodded down by Kevin Toner before ex-Lilywhite Conor Clifford finished from close range to stun the home crowd into further silence.
Dundalk had to up the intensity following that concession and both Massey and Duffy saw their headers go over the bar and then deflected out for a corner, to which nothing amounted from.
Referee Robert Harvey, who is far from the most popular official in Dundalk these days, didn’t endear himself any more to the home support when waving away strong penalty appeals following what looked to be an obvious foul on Hoban.
Only off the substitutes bench, Ronan Murray tested Brendan Clarke but the St. Pat’s goalkeeper saved easily before McEleney curled an effort well wide of the post as the clock continued to tick towards 90 minutes.
However, right on the stroke of the final minute of normal time, McEleney beat the challenge of several Saints defenders before playing in Hoban, who made no mistake to score his 26th league goal of the season.
He, in the process, broke a club record for league goals in a single season as Dundalk, unquestionably the best team in the country, were crowned champions despite there being three matches still to play.
Dundalk:Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Brian Gartland, Daniel Cleary (Georgie Kelly 88), Dane Massey; Chris Shields, Robbie Benson (John Mountney 12); Dylan Connolly (Ronan Murray 67), Patrick McEleney, Michael Duffy; Patrick Hoban.
Subs not used:Gabriel Sava, Stephen Folan, Dean Jarvis, George Poynton.
St Patrick’s Athletic:Brendan Clarke; Lee Desmond, Michael Leahy, Kevin Toner; Simon Madden, Conor Clifford (Killian Brennan 84), Jamie Lennon, Ryan Brennan, Ian Bermingham; Jake Keegan (Luke Heeney 90+1), Conan Byrne (Neill Byrne 62).
Subs not used:Barry Murphy, Michael Barker, James Doona, Ian Turner.
Booked:Jamie Lennon (45).
Extratime.ie Man of the Match:Patrick Hoban (Dundalk).