Niall Newberry reports from Oriel Park
A relentless Dundalk secured their fifth SSE Airtricity League title in the space of six years thanks to an entertaining 3-2 win over Shamrock Rovers at a rainy Oriel Park on Monday night.
First-half headed goals from Sean Hoare and Robbie Benson had sent the Lilywhites on their way before Aaron Greene pulled one back for the visitors after the restart.
A goal of the season contender from Michael Duffy restored Dundalk’s two-goal advantage, but Aaron McEneff’s strike ensured a nervy finish for Vinny Perth’s side, who have won the league despite having four games still to play.
Dundalk made three changes from the side that beat Waterford at the RSC just three days prior to with Sean Hoare, Dane Massey and Patrick McEleney all returning to the starting line-up.
Rovers were held to a scoreless draw at home to St Patrick’s Athletic on the same night and they also made three alterations as Ronan Finn, Gary O’Neill and Aaron McEneff all came into the team.
This game was something of a slow burner with both teams happy enough to feel each other out in the opening exchanges, with McEneff and Graham Burke seeing their shots trickle harmlessly wide.
For the hosts, the industrious Chris Shields planted an excellent ball into the box that was fired across goal by Michael Duffy just a few minutes before Jamie McGrath saw his shot fly over the top.
The first big chance of the night fell to the visitors however, when from a corner, Burke pulled the ball back to Roberto Lopes, but the central defender skied his effort from close range.
Oriel Park was expectant and Dundalk delivered on 28 minutes when Duffy’s corner from the left was met by a towering header from Hoare, giving Alan Mannus absolutely no chance whatsoever.
Dundalk had kept eight consecutive clean sheets in the league heading into this fixture, but an uncharacteristic mix-up at the back almost resulted in Daniel Cleary slicing into his own net.
Luckily from the Lilywhites’ perspective, the ever-dependable Gary Rogers was on hand to save.
Five minutes before the break, Massey’s quick free-kick, which was straight from the training ground, found its way to Robbie Benson, whose shot from an angle sailed narrowly wide of Mannus’ post.
The roof was lifted from Oriel a minute into first-half stoppages as the Lilywhites doubled their advantage, with McEleney’s floated cross from the left headed into the bottom corner by Benson.
Rovers got themselves back into the contest ten minutes after the restart when Sean Kavanagh’s cross evaded the Dundalk defence and into the path of Aaron Greene, who then finished expertly.
The Hoops almost equalised moments after that when Jack Byrne’s cross was chested down by Greene, who had all the time in the world before turning his effort over – cue relief from Dundalk.
That relief was amplified on 59 minutes when Duffy picked the ball up from McEleney’s pass before unleashing a shot from right into the top corner in what was a true goal of the season contender.
On fire after restoring their two-goal advantage, Dundalk went agonisingly close to scoring their fourth right after Duffy’s screamer when Massey’s low shot just clipped the outside of the post.
However, it was Rovers that instead got themselves back into the game in the 65th minute when Burke laid the ball off to McEneff, who fired past the helpless Rogers and into the bottom corner.
A now nervous Dundalk looked to finally put this game to bed and substitute Sean Murray saw his corner met by a glancing header from Hoban, who could only divert his effort wide of the far post.
Rovers almost spoiled Dundalk’s party in injury-time when McEneff’s shot had to be tipped over by Rogers before Sean Gannon headed off the line from the resulting corner as Dundalk held on.
It’s now five league titles in the space of six years and a new club-record of 23 league matches unbeaten for Dundalk. What a night for quite possibly the greatest League of Ireland team in history.
Dundalk: Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Sean Hoare, Daniel Cleary, Dane Massey; Chris Shields, Robbie Benson (Sean Murray 68); Jamie McGrath, Patrick McEleney (Daniel Kelly 78), Michael Duffy; Patrick Hoban (Georgie Kelly 87).
Subs not used: Aaron McCarey, Brian Gartland, Dean Jarvis, Cameron Dummigan.
Booked: Daniel Cleary (18), Patrick Hoban (18), Daniel Kelly (90+3).
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Ronan Finn, Roberto Lopes, Lee Grace, Daniel Lafferty; Aaron McEneff, Gary O’Neill (Brandon Kavanagh 79); Graham Burke (Dylan Watts 75), Jack Byrne, Sean Kavanagh; Aaron Greene.
Subs not used: Leon Pohls, Ethan Boyle, Greg Bolger, Neil Farrugia, Graham Cummins.
Booked: Graham Burke (18).
Referee: Paul McLaughlin.
Attendance: 3,634 (official).
Extratime.ie Man of the Match: Michael Duffy (Dundalk).