Bray rain on parade
It's advantage Cork City in the title race as Dundalk can only register a draw
THE old cliché about 'Battling Bray' came true to put a real dent in Dundalk's bid to land their first title since 1995.
And after this 1-1 draw for Dundalk away to a Bray Wanderers side who secured their Premier Division status for next season on the back of this result, advantage in the title race has swung in the direction of Munster, Cork City now needing a point from the final game of the season - Dundalk v Bray at Oriel Park next week - to snatch away a title which seemed destined for Dundalk.
Stephen Kenny's side struggled with the dreadful conditions in Bray and needed an equaliser from Pat Hoban to avoid defeat but with momentum behind a Cork side who have now won six games in a row, next weekend in Oriel will be a nail-biter.
Even before a ball had been kicked at the Carlisle Grounds, there was something unsettled, and unsettling, about the night. An accident on the M50 had caused traffic chaos with the result that many of the large Dundalk support arrived at the game late or just before kick-off.
When they finally made their way into the ground they were greeted by sheets of rain and howling wind, so right away Dundalk knew they were in for a real test.
So much of Dundalk's success this season has been based on their style of play - clinical passing, neat team-work, clever midfield prodding from the likes of Richie Towell and thrilling wing play from wide men Darren Meenan and Daryl Horgan.
But with a boggy, wet pitch and a howling gale at this seaside venue, this was never going to be about the beautiful game for Dundalk.
And within a minute the away side and the long-time league leaders were struggling, as Bray took a shock lead.
There was just 28 seconds on the clock when former Dundalk man David Cassidy put Bray in front. Dundalk failed to deal with a cross in from the right and allowed Dean Zambra get a shot in, Dundalk keeper Peter Cherrie saved that effort but the rebound fell to Cassidy and he struck, claiming his first goal since April.
Dundalk needed a response but even with the wind behind them, it was hard for Kenny's side to create, let alone finish. Defender Brian Gartland had a couple of headed efforts that didn't really worry Bray's keeper Stephen McGuinness.
Those Dundalk fans, by now soaked from the incessant rain, had to wait until the 33rd minute for the first threat of note, Daryl Horgan forcing a save from McGuinness after a fine run by the U21 cap, but two minutes later it was Bray who were posing the questions, a good save from Cherrie needed to deny Dave Scully.
As the half wore on Dundalk tried to wear down the Wicklow club, Kurtis Byrne shooting side on 44 minutes while in first-half injury-time Meenan almost nicked an equaliser, keeper McGuinnes saving.
The half-time break gave Stephen Kenny a chance to do his work and settle his side down, the Dundalk boss also using the break in play to make a change with John Mountney introduced for Byrne while Stephen O'Donnell, making his third sub appearance following a long lay-off due to injury, was also thrown into the fray.
The sense of nervousness and tension was added to as news had by now seeped through that Cork City were leading at home to Bohemians, the nightmare scenario for Dundalk. Yet Dundalk still struggled to get to grips with the awful conditions and get a grip on the game and early in the second half it was Bray who looked more likely to score.
Brian Gartland was well-placed in the box to block a shot from Dave Scully while Dundalk fans were very nervous on 61 minutes when Jake Kelly bore down on goal, and only the crossbar prevented his shot from going in.
The away side did manage to draw level thanks to star striker Hoban on 63 minutes, the big Galway lad bustling his way past his marker to connect with Meenan's cross to score his 20th league goal of the season.
That equaliser could and should have been the spark for Dundalk to go on and win the game but the side who have looked like champions-in-waiting for months now seemed to have their energy sapped by this difficult evening in Wicklow, and it was Bray who posed the bigger threat in the latter stages, Jake Kelly and Scully causing further moments of panic.
Four minutes from the end Dundalk were almost punished again and Cherrie had to scramble the ball away from Scully after a corner was not cleared, Bray still in the hunt for a winner.
But Dundalk, and Bray, had to settle for a point so the focus now moves on to Oriel Park next Friday, where a draw for Cork City will see them steal away a title which appeared to be all but won by Dundalk a few weeks ago.