Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk side have been the fairy tale story of League of Ireland football over the last three years.
They’ve collected every league title available in that time as well as enjoying the most successful and fervently followed European run in recent memory.
Unfortunately for the Co Louth side, they have been the victim of their own success. Their outstanding performances have meant that their best players have been cherry picked by clubs across the water.
First, Ritchie Towell was bound for Brighton and Hove Albion and then last season Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan were snared by Preston North End.
The toll of this asset stripping has been felt this season. As Cork flew into an early lead mechanically winning game after game Kenny was busy trying to bed in new players.
Today’s EA Sports Cup Final was a chance to keep the traffic in the trophy room flowing.
With just four minutes gone and neither side really managing to get their foot on the ball yet, Dundalk took the lead from the first corner of the game.
David McMillan once again demonstrated his ghost-like ability to find space in the box before powering in a header. It was intercepted on the line by a combination of defenders and goalkeeper Tomer Chencinski but McMillan put enough meat on it to ensure it crossed the line.
Almost immediately afterward Rovers went close from their own corner as David Webster’s headed effort hit the foot of the post. But it was Dundalk showing early desire to get the ball down and play. Robbie Benson went close to making it 2-0 with the deftest of back heal touches after McMillan broke the Rovers back line.
McMillan went close to doubling Dundlak’s lead against the run of play, grazing the post after Patrick McEleney played him in from the left. Michael Duffy too, could have eased the pressure on Dundalk after cutting in from the left onto his right foot only to make it easy for Chencinski.
While the second half began just as competitively as the first Kenny’s men were the only side that really looked capable of cutting open the opposition’s defence.
Rovers had upped their aggression levels but it wasn’t helping them on the ball. Young Aaron Bolger looks a real talent but a couple of overzealous challenges saw him sent off for two yellow cards. From that moment on the game was tilted in Dundalk’s favour.
With ten minutes to go McEleney doubled Dundalk’s lead from the edge of the box with a beautiful, outward-curling effort in off Chencinski’s far post. It was moment of genuine quality from a player who’s produced them at will this season.
Dundalk were coasting, controlling large periods of the game with their patient passing game.
Captain Stephen O’Donnell was brought on to help see out the dying minutes. Dundalk players always had plenty of options on the ball. Substitute Thomas Stewart made the score 3-0, slotting the ball home coolly after being played in one on one with Chencinski.
Dundalk had looked the more dangerous, incisive side from the first whistle and the sending off only served to reinforce their dominance. Both sides would have been considered the league’s form teams coming into the match but there was a gulf in quality in the final third on the day.
Time To Gel
Dundalk’s performance was typical of what we’ve seen from Kenny’s side over the last couple of years. Having lost some of their most influential performers from last season it has taken them a while to find this kind of form again.
Had Kenny been able to integrate his new players a little sooner the race for the title could still be on. As it is, Cork will limp over the line. However, there have been rumours of David McMillan and Nicolas Vemmelund being courted by other teams.
If Dundalk can hold onto the squad they have this season and make a couple of quality additions they will be in pole position for the league once again.
Stephen Vaughan, Pundit Arena
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