Tuesday night’s eagerly anticipated duel between League of Ireland table toppers Dundalk and Cork City lived up to all expectations.
The pace of the game was frenetic, borne from Dundalk’s exemplary pressing game in conjunction with Cork’s frantic attempts to pin Dundalk in their own half. The first goal came just seven minutes in after Dundalk won a dubious free-kick in a good position.
Daryl Horgan then proceeded to hit the bar before the ball ricocheted back off an unfortunate Mark McNulty and into the net. From this point on Dundalk and Stephen Kenny decided to look for counter-attacking opportunities, inviting Cork on to them, which led to numerous turnovers and, indeed, Daryl Horgan’s sublime solo goal before half-time, where he carried the ball to the edge of the box before driving it into the back of the net.
One has to wonder what the overriding feelings were in the Cork dressing room at half-time. They have been chasing Dundalk at the top of the league for more than two years and have established themselves as the second best team in the country, but despite all the progress Cork have made under John Caulfield they still haven’t got over the line and brought some silverware back to Turner’s Cross.
However, they’ve regularly picked up results against the Lilywhites and pushed them all the way both in the league and cup. Even with Mark O’Sullivan pulling a goal back for Cork, they never looked like getting a vital result, which would have tilted the title race in their favour considering Dundalk’s fixture congestion.
Indeed, the difference between the two sides and their respective managers was apparent on Tuesday night. Dundalk refuse to compromise their principles of playing attractive football such as passing the ball to feet and being creative, showing immense moral courage at all times to show for the ball under severe pressure as well as pressing with a controlled ferocity that is unparalleled.
On the other hand, Cork aren’t as pure. They have good ball players, but resorted to hoofing long balls when they ran out of ideas. Indeed, this was compounded by dreadful performances from both Greg Bolger and Gavan Holohan in midfield. Both were uninspiring in possession and Bolger, who is expected to provide the back four with cover, missed tackles at vital times in the game. On another night the ex-St. Pat’s man could have seen red after a succession of fouls.
I doubt that Cork can break Dundalk’s current stranglehold on Irish football after Tuesday night. Which brings me onto Kenny and his ambitions for both himself and the Louth side. The money the club has earned this year from their European run means that they should dominate the Irish game for the next five years, but only if they invest wisely and don’t squander the money in a similar fashion to other League of Ireland clubs before them.
Dundalk will need structural development as well as constant squad rebuilding each year in order to do this. I’m sure Kenny is under no illusions about how difficult this will be. Should he succeed, he will have exceeded anything he would have believed possible after being cast aside by Shamrock Rovers and Dunfermline.
The comparisons between Dundalk and the national side have ensured that if Kenny takes prudent steps in maintaining Dundalk’s dominance over the next few years he will be one of the primary contenders to succeed Martin O’Neill as manager of the Republic of Ireland.
If he does so, he will have irrevocably changed the landscape of the game in this country for the better.
Luke O’Connor, Pundit Arena