Shamrock Rovers 2 Dundalk 2
After eight encounters in four competitions, these two might well have been sick of the sight of each other by the end of last season. If the games could be all like this one though, the fans at least would probably settle for the same again.
Given that Martin O’Neill was taking in a rare league game here, the standard wasn’t always up to what might have been hoped, with both sides making a few too many mistakes to be really impressive. What it lacked on that front, though, it made up for by producing more than its share of drama.
After an entertaining though slightly less eventful first 45 minutes, Dundalk were worth the lead they took just before half-time courtesy of David McMillan, who ruthlessly punished what was just another in a succession of defensive errors by the home side.
Like Darren Meenan before him, the striker was allowed to get in one-on-one with Craig Hyland but unlike the midfielder, McMillan made the chance count, slipping the ball the beyond the oncoming goalkeeper as defenders gave up the chase.
If that was a bad time to concede,
must have been dismayed to see his team talk followed within seconds by the doubling of Dundalk’s lead with
marking his return to Tallaght with a startling goal straight from the kick-off.
Then it got really interesting, though, with Gary Rogers getting sent off for a foul on Gary McCabe.
This handed the Dubliners a way back into the game.
Mikey Drennan drove the penalty past Rogers's replacement Gabriel Sava and less than five minutes later pulled the locals level with a cracker of a curling shot to the far corner after he had shrugged off his man down the right-hand side of the area.
Sava rarely looked comfortable during the half-hour that followed but in front of him the Dundalk defence dug in and, occasionally clung on by the skin of their teeth.
Drennan might have had his hat-trick within eight minutes but his shot this time was tame and having managed to parry, the goalkeeper, making his league debut for the Oriel Park outfit more than a year after joining from Drogheda, must have been relieved to see the loose ball hoofed away in front of him.
Fenlon, generally considered the more cautious of the two managers, then sought to press home his advantage by bringing on striker
for defensive midfielder
, but still the home side struggled to carve out another really clear-cut chance.
When it came, it fell to the man every home fan would have hoped would get it. Substitute Brandon Miele rounded Sava, then set Drennan up, who was perfectly placed to score despite the line of three defenders hoping to block his path.
In the end, they didn’t have to, with the former youth international blasting over from 12 yards or so.
As the seconds slipped by, Dundalk were clearly going to be happy to get to the end unbeaten, but they never quite gave up on nicking it either and they might have done on one of two occasions, the second one seconds before the final whistle when McMillan stole clear, but couldn’t quite find a way past Hyland as the angle worsened.
It was, in the end, a frustrating night for the champions who will rue the loss of their winning position and, on the strength of this, miss their first choice keeper next time out.
Still, there’ll be some satisfaction that even after handicapping themselves in the way they did at the home of potential rivals, they came away unbeaten.
Rovers, meanwhile, may feel some lingering relief given that, on one level, they got out of jail, but they too must have been disappointed at not managing to go on to win; in the circumstances, they might just wonder about the rate at which they are progressing if they see themselves as real title contenders.
They started this game as they finished last season, in fourth place. By October they were 12 points behind Dundalk, having managed just one league win in nine attempts against the three sides that finished above them.
This should have been number two against the same three clubs but 10-man Dundalk were allowed to hang on, the gap between first and fourth remains five points less than a third of the way through the new season and the Dubliners, for all the hints of improvement, clearly still have work to do.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Hyland; Madden, Webster, Kenna, O'Connor; Cregg (North, 81 mins), McPhail; O'Connor (Miele, 75 mins), Brennan, McCabe (Waters, 87 mins); Drennan.
DUNDALK: Rogers; Gannon, Gartland, Boyle, Massey; Towell, Shields; Meenan (Sava, 55 mins), Finn (Mountney, 83 mins), Horgan (O'Donnell, 71 mins); McMillan. Referee: N Doyle (Dublin).