Stalemate ends City’s title reign
A VICTORY would only have delayed the inevitable, but following a stalemate with Shamrock Rovers at the Tallaght Stadium, Cork City finally surrendered their Airtricity League Premier Division crown to Dundalk.
Twelve points and a substantial goal difference separated the arch rivals in the table ahead of the evening’s fare – a gap that remains in place as a result of Dundalk’s 1-1 draw against St Patrick’s Athletic at Oriel Park.
A point was enough to secure second place for City, though there was an anti-climactic feel to the way the action unfolded. With the spectre of a semi-final replay against Bohemians looming large, Rebels boss John Caulfield (who was serving a one-game touchline ban) had a bigger picture to consider.
In the aftermath of last Sunday’s draw at Dalymount Park, he admitted confidence was low within the City ranks.
Three successive league reversals ensured focus would switch to their defence of the FAI Cup.
Kieran Sadlier’s equaliser last weekend kept their push for silverware alive – and he was one of two players (Ronan Coughlan being the other) to be retained in a drastically-altered City line-up.
The appearance of nine fresh Cork faces may have seemed excessive, but it did allow the quartet of Pierce Phillips, Ronan Hurley, Shane Daly-Butz and Cian Murphy to make their first league starts at this grade.
Hurley and Murphy featured for the City U19s in a 2-2 draw away to UCD six days earlier alongside David Harrington and Dale Holland – who were named on a bench that also included the established duo of Graham Cummins and Gearoid Morrissey.
While it may have appeared unlikely just a few short weeks ago, there was considerably more at stake on the evening for an improving Rovers outfit.
Courtesy of six wins in their last seven games, the Hoops had leap-frogged Waterford into third place in the table – a position that guarantees European qualification for 2019.
In an effort to keep tabs on the dangerous Sadlier, Rovers supremo Stephen Bradley selected a familiar face as the defensive pivot in a 4-1-4-1 formation. Greg Bolger was a league title winner with City 12 months and his reliable presence allowed Ronan Finn and Dylan Watts to break into advanced positions.
The Leesiders were relatively comfortable in defence during the opening-quarter, as Murphy and Daly-Butz tracked the galloping runs of raiding Hoops full-backs Ethan Boyle and Sean Kavanagh.
Inevitably, chances began to fall the way of the hosts – and it took some heroics rearguard work by City to keep the sides on level terms. Hurley produced an excellent save to divert Dan Carr’s close-range effort away from danger and Phillips cut out a Watts delivery on the half-hour mark.
After losing their starting slots in the wake of the 4-2 league loss to Bohs in mid-September, this encounter offered Peter Cherrie and Damien Delaney their own shots at redemption.
Cherrie smartly saved a Watts strike that was teed up by Carr, while Delaney effectively marshalled a pressurised back-four. Indeed, it was his central defensive partner – Aaron Barry – who came to City’s aid on 38 minutes.
Finn looked certain to head home at a right-hand angle, only for Barry to spectacularly deny him with a goal-line clearance. The 30-year-old Dubliner also saw a subsequent opportunity tipped over by the fingertips of Cherrie – whose 2014 departure from Dundalk preceded Finn’s arrival at the same club.
A scoreless opening period kept City in the reckoning for their 22nd league triumph of the term and their first since August 3rd – when they recorded a 2-1 success over Waterford. They needed to impose themselves more in the final-third, but it was hoped that the half-time introductions of Morrissey and Conor McCarthy would allow them to do that.
Sadlier made way for the former, which meant that Barry McNamee moved behind hard-working lone striker Coughlan. McCarthy – who was fouled for Sadlier’s controversial penalty in Phisborough seven days ago – was a direct swap for Daly-Butz on the right-flank.
Just past the hour, McNamee almost capitalised on a rare mistake in the Rovers half to break the deadlock in a largely tentative affair.
Though Roberto Lopes recovered in time to halt the progress of the Donegal native, City were now displaying greater attacking intent.
McNamee’s influence on the game was steadily growing, with Murphy and McCarthy acting as useful outlets in the wide areas.
With news filtering through that Dundalk had fallen behind to a Conor Clifford goal, a City breakthrough could have extended the title race for another week at least.
Murphy had a shot blocked as the Rebels attempted to turn the screw, albeit it was Rovers who came closest to finding a winning goal in the closing stages.
Cherrie pulled off a couple of top-drawer saves to preserve a draw for City, which consequently brought their losing streak to an end.
A Patrick Hoban leveller for Dundalk had already ended their reign as league champions, but in front of a 3,105-strong attendance, a youthful City side were able to emerge with their heads held high.