Dundalk 1 UCD 0
There may well be teams next year who struggle to beat this UCD team but Collie O’Neill’s young side looked to be right up the street here of a Dundalk team that didn’t play especially well but remain firmly in the hunt for a double after making sure of their place in November’s FAI Cup final.
A solitary Pat McEleney goal four minutes before half-time was enough to get them there, and though there should have been more, the sense in the stand afterwards was that hosts were entitled to an off-night as long their ultimate aim was achieved.
“I’m really happy it was one of the more important ones,” said McEleney afterwards. “We won one-nil and that’s good enough.
“It was a tough game but they’re a good side who made us run, to be fair,” continued the 26 year-old. “Credit to them, they came, tried to play right way. Luckily enough we got the goal.
“I’m just really happy to get into the final, though. We’ve had disappointments in the last couple and we’re hoping to put it right now.”
Asked whether the double now felt like it was within their grasp, the midfielder said that it had been the target since the summer. “It’s been in our sights since I came back, it’s all everyone’s been talking about at the club and we’re in a great position for it now.”
It had taken a while for their opponents here to mature to the stage where they could achieve their goal; to emerge from the first division playing such an attractive brand of football. But it was hard to escape feeling as the night wore on that they are the sort of opponents Stephen Kenny might dream about at night; a lighter, lesser version of the group he has so successfully built himself these past few seasons.
Without a bit more bite, there always seemed to be the danger that the night would simply pass them by.
Actually, they made a bit more of a match than that but the extent to which they were allowed to was slightly surprising.
From the outset, their energy and organisation was impressive but it was only ever likely to get them so far. Liam Scales exemplified what they had going for them with the way he applied himself to looking after Pat Hoban, but once things settled, their prospects never looked much brighter than making things tough for their hosts. And once McEleney scored, what was a very fine goal shortly before the break, they no longer looked to have any prospects at all really.
Things might have been different had referee Robert Hennessy taken a dimmer view of Daniel Cleary's careless looking challenge on Conor Davis early on, but the defender got a yellow when it might have been red and the UCD striker ended up being booked too for his complaints.
From the resulting free, Gary O'Neill showed what he can make of a set piece in a decent position with the midfielder curling in a ball that clearly caused some anxiety among the Dundalk defence. The real fright, though, came when Timmy Molloy materialised beyond the last defender, although he couldn't get the power behind the header required to cause Gary Rogers an actual problem.
O'Neill forced the Dundalk goalkeeper into a half-decent save with another free early in the second half, but by then UCD were behind to McEleney's strike. It had come from a Conor Kearns kick out that that Michael Duffy had chested straight into the path of his team-mate before he pulled inside, pushed beyond Josh Collins then let fly towards the top corner.
Kenny had actually been playing weakened teams in the earliest rounds of this year’s cup and what was a very strong line-up here should really have made much shorter work of wrapping things up from that point on. Somehow, though, they failed to drive their advantage home against a side that showed admirable composure as they sought to come out and chase an equaliser, albeit with precious little cutting edge.
Hoban tested Kearns a couple of times and the goalkeeper was a little fortunate that some uncertain handling did not prove more costly. The saves, though, kept things alive through to the closing stages when O’Neill threw a forward on for a full back in the hope a beefed up strike-force could pull something remarkable out of the bag.
Instead, Kearns had to produce the stop of the night to keep Hoban at bay again and the final whistle got the second biggest cheer of the night.
Cork or Bohemians still stand between Kenny’s men and what would be the second double of his reign but even when struggling to find their best form they keep on winning and edging, it seems, towards another bit of history at the Aviva.
DUNDALK: Rogers; Gannon, Gartland, Cleary, Massey; Shields, Benson (Jarvis, 90 mins); Mountney (McGrath, 77 mins), McEleney, Duffy; Hoban.
UCD: Kearns; Tobin (Mahdy, 87 mins), Collins, Scales, Doyle; Sloggett, O'Neill; Farrugia, Molloy (O'Connor, 82 mins), McClelland; Davis.
Referee: Robert Hennessy.