Dundalk edge closer to title
Dundalk moved a step closer to their first League of Ireland title in 19 years with a resounding 3-0 win over 10-man Athlone Town at Lissywoolen last night.
Pat Hoban bagged two goals to bring his total for the season to 23, 19 of which have come in the League, equalling the top-flight mark set by Jimmy Munroe in the 1959/60 season. More significantly it ensured Dundalk left here with a victory, something which seemed far from certain during a tense first half, but became inevitable after the game's key moment occurred seven minutes before the break.
What happened then is open to dispute, Athlone claiming Dundalk's full-back, Dane Massey overreacted to Brian Shortall's attempt to stop him, Dundalk adamant their player was flattened by a push to the face. Clearly referee, Tomás Connolly, shared the visitors' view, dismissing Shortall, which forced Keith Long into a tactical rethink.
To his credit, the Athlone manager kept things simple, moving Ian Sweeney from his split-striker role to the right side of midfield, the position vacated by Kealan Dillon, who relocated to full-back.
Dundalk found it difficult to find a way past Ryan Coulter, the Athlone goalkeeper, whose quick reactions prevented Brian Gartland scoring with a header in the seventh minute, and Kurtis Byrne with a low shot in the 19th.
So it was left to Hoban to get the goal they craved, which came immediately after half-time when he calmly controlled Sean Gannon's low cross, which was diverted into his path by a deflection off Byrne, before the big striker side-footed home from eight yards.
Still it could have been different had Derek Doyle connected cleanly with Dillon's cross just before half-time. A goal then would have unsettled Dundalk, whose anxiety had been evident in the opening half.
But once ahead, they settled down, attacking repeatedly down both flanks, where the benefit of an extra man became noticeable.
And yet Athlone showed a never-say-die attitude, exemplified by their captain, Alan Byrne, who was superb in defence and by Gorman, whose persistence nearly got its reward in the 50th minute, when his shot on the turn ended narrowly wide of Peter Cherrie's goal.
However the fact Athlone needed to chase the game at this stage was crucial in determining how the remainder of the night would pan out. Forced to attack, they were prone to the counter-attack and it was via this route that the game's second, killer goal arrived, when Chris Shields broke up their attack in the middle of the park, before switching the play to Darren Meenan who, in turn, delivered the perfect pass to Hoban, who provided the shot which Coulter could not stop.
Nor could he keep out Richie Towell's 90th minute shot from the edge of the area. The question now is who can stop Dundalk? Shamrock Rovers on Monday are next, then Bray on Friday. The League could be won there and then.