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Wednesday 23 August 2017

It's all white on the night

Kenny oversees remarkable final day league win for Dundalk over Cork City

24 October 2014; Dundalk's Stephen O'Donnell celebrates scoring his side's first goal. SSE Airtricity League Premier Division, Dundalk v Cork City, Oriel Park, Dundalk, Co. Louth. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
24 October 2014; Dundalk's Stephen O'Donnell celebrates scoring his side's first goal. SSE Airtricity League Premier Division, Dundalk v Cork City, Oriel Park, Dundalk, Co. Louth. Picture credit: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

THIS was Stephen's day and Dundalk's night as Oriel Park, the setting for so much misery and failure in recent years, was the stage for a memorable resurrection last night.

They love their final-day drama in Dundalk and once again, the Lilywhites did what was needed, this time earning a 2-0 win over Cork City, thanks to goals from Stephen O'Donnell and Brian Gartland, to win the club's first title in 19 years.

It was a remarkable turnaround for two Stephens: boss Stephen Kenny, whose career was at a low ebb when he was sacked by Shamrock Rovers two years ago, and for captain Stephen O'Donnell, who thought his season was over when he suffered a knee injury six months ago but who stormed back to the team and came up with the key opening goal last night, an admirable display of skill and bravery from the Galway native.

Back in April when he suffered his injury it seemed certain that the season was a write-off for O'Donnell, and things became even more serious shortly when a blood clot caused a complication which could have been fatal for the player, to his recovery and his impact on the game last night is even more astonishing, one of the sports stories of the year.

Both managers are sticklers for detail and preparation, football anoraks if you like, and they will have spent the entire week in the build-up to the game thinking over every detail.

CRUCIATE

Team selection was a big issue for Kenny and he made a big call by including O'Donnell in his starting XI. O'Donnell clearly can have an impact on a game but he had been out since he suffered a cruciate injury in April and, after just three sub appearances, Kenny deemed the Galway native fit enough - and important enough - to start.

Later on, that decision would give Kenny payback when O'Donnell fired in that goal, a new contender for 'goal of my career' for O'Donnell whose strike in Belgrade sent Shamrock Rovers into the group stages of the Europa League.

Former Ireland international Colin Healy was imperious in the middle for Cork and his work on and off the ball made sure that Dundalk's talisman Richie Towell was struggling to impact the game the way he can.

As it turned out we had to wait until 34 minutes had passed before there was a real threat to either goal. Healy used his guile to win the ball and send John O'Flynn clear, O'Flynn fired a cross into the box and Mark O'Sullivan was unlucky not to score.

Seconds later it was Dundalk's turn, Daryl Horgan breaking free and whipping in one of his dangerous crosses for O'Donnell, but again the final effort was just short.

Horgan flashed a shot wide on 37 minutes and then forced a save from Mark McNulty a minute later.

But the nerves among the home fans were truly on edge on 39 minutes. Billy Dennehy, a Kerry native who won a league title from his spell in Dublin with Shamrock Rovers but is now a paid-up member of the Rebel Army, saw a chance from a dead ball situation, a free kick after a foul by Brian Gartland, and Dundalk only escaped as Dennehy's free kick came off the post and away to safety.

Two minutes into the second half, Dundalk got their noses in front through that man O'Donnell. A cross from sub Higgins was laid off by Towell into the path of O'Donnell and the ex-Arsenal man showed all of his experience and poise to score past McNulty.

Relieved at their earlier escape from that close shave involving Denneny, the Dundalk support erupted, some of their fans not even born the last time the league title came to Oriel Park.

Dundalk are not a side to sit on a 1-0 lead and they upped the tempo after the lead goal. O'Donnell had another effort - a headed one this time - go wide on 55 minutes.

Cork needed something different to get back into the game and boss Caulfield showed his hand early enough, all three City subs used with 20 minutes still to play but with the home side now in control, Cork searched in vain for scoring chances, Mark O'Sullivan going close but not close enough on 73 minutes.

When the next goal came it was for the home side, Gartland getting on the end of a cross to claim another goal. A scrappy one but a vital one as Dundalk now had that two-goal cushion and as City saw a possible title ebb away, Dundalk held on to win the match, the night, the title and also won back the hearts of the locals, a victory which local legends like the late Tommy McConville would have been proud of.

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