Champions mauled by pretenders
TWO THIRDS gone and they're going to take some stopping now. St Patrick's have the bit between their teeth, or what one of the Dundalk players afterwards described as "the hunger we had last season". The champions weren't the first, nor one suspects the last, to be devoured by another voracious home display in the lions den that Richmond Park has become.
Not even the untimely early departure of their inspirational playmaker Eddie Gormley interrupted their momentum. Roared on by a noticeably good humoured and vociferous 3,500 attendance, yet again St Patrick's whipped up a fair old head of steam to record their eighth home win in 11 starts.
St Patrick's just keep attacking in waves. The defending champions were game enough in the opening period, and even pegged back St Patrick's with an equaliser before the break. But they were simply worn down once the home side upped the beat. For once the corner tally, 2-1 at the break and 10-1 at the end, got it about right.
The Dundalk back four, for all their experience, looked as if they had only been introduced to each other before the kick off. The number of times they got their wires crossed was unreal, and it would probably be fair to say that Eddie Van Boxtel in goal showed more composure on the ball.
Noel Mernagh replaced Gormley and did his unobtrusive linkman's role. The young bucks Brian Morrisroe on the left and Martin Reilly up front ran Dundalk's legs off.
But really, singling out individuals is superfluous after another compelling team performance.
So Dermot Keely's "January horribilis" ended without a win in six games. It would appear to have torn the bottom out of their season, though Keely wasn't inclined to chuck in the title towel. "But obviously we can't afford many more mistakes." With 13 points to peg back, one would suggest 11 wins may be required.
With both back fours compressing the game, midfield was sometimes too tight to mention and the space behind them was often a more viable option.
Ever vulnerable to unchecked midfield runners and quick balls over the top, the warning bells ring loud in the Dundalk defence within four minutes when Paul Campbell got in ahead of Van Boxtel only to see his lob clip the upright.
St Patrick's could have had a sizeable hill to overcome had; Peter Withnell not shot into the side netting when Brian Byrne nodded on Richie Purdy's long ball. Ditto when Stephen Kelly slipped in attempting to round Gareth Byrne after beating the offside trap. In between times, Van Boxtel came off his line to deny O'Flaherty after a typically spritely infield run by Morrisroe.
After 39 minutes, the underrated Paul Campbell, assuming the dead ball responsibilities and much of the home side's inspiration, floated a free toward the near post where nobody picked up Reilly's run. A glancing header made it 1-0. Game on.
Dundalk retaliated. Keith Long's wind assisted, in swinging free 30 yards out on the touchline had Gareth Byrne scampering to palm the ball over. But he was less effective in attempting the same when Brian Byrne scored direct from the ensuing corner.
A tight, close game seemed the likeliest outcome, but four successive corners on the restart indicated the Saints' fired up mood. Pat Kelly disallowed Morrisroe's "goal" from a corner for a push on Van Boxtel; the latter then shot over and Reilly flashed a diving header wide after a sweeping McDonell Paul Campbell move.
The inevitable breakthrough came after 62 minutes. In failing to control an outswinging cross by Morrisroe, Reilly actually prompted John Coady to instinctively palm the ball away from Paul Campbell. The peerless Pat Kelly - again, you'd hardly have noticed him - was on cue and Paul Campbell converted the penalty.
The Saints are marching irresistibly onward.