Dundalk maintained top spot after grinding out a scoreless draw with fellow First Division title hopefuls Shelbourne at Tolka Park, writes Séamus Leonard.

An uninspiring first half was followed by a slightly better second period in which Shels striker Anthony Flood missed a sitter when he headed straight at Dundalk ‘keeper Chris Bennion from a David Freeman corner.

Substitute Paul Crowley went close for the Lilywhites before Freeman missed a chance to steal the three points for the hosts at the death when he failed to finish from close range following a Gary McCabe cross.

Dundalk manager John Gill had engaged in mind games before the clash by claiming that Shels, who entered and exited the tie two points adrift, were under more pressure to win than the visitors. His point was probably valid, but both sides knew that whatever happened in Drumcondra tonight there would be a lot of football to be played before the title was decided.

The first quarter of an hour set the trend for a disappointing opening period. Shels, who had a blustery wind at their backs, were guilty of pumping aimless, long balls into the corner, while Dundalk couldn’t hold onto the ball for long enough to mount a meaningful attack.

The first chance fell to Robbie Hedderman but the Shels left-back couldn’t keep his header down from James Keddy’s corner at the Ballybough End.

Home goalkeeper Dean Delaney rained a succession of high balls down on Keddy on the left touchline, but the tactic posed few problems for Dundalk skipper John Flanagan.

Dundalk were next to threaten but striker Trevor Vaughan’s header from David Crawley’s free-kick fell kindly in front of Delaney.

The first real moment of quality came when Hedderman’s ball set new Shels signing Andrei ‘Franco’ Georgescu away down the left side of the visitors’ area. The diminutive Romanian pulled back for Anthony Flood but Paul Shiels got back in the nick of time to clear for Dundalk.

Georgescu went close again seven minutes from the break when, after good work by Freeman and Keddy, he sent a left-footed shot flashing past the right post.

The hosts were dealt a blow when Alan Keely, standing in as captain in the absence of the suspended Damien Brennan, was forced off with an apparent hamstring injury.

Dundalk winger Paul Smyth started the second half well and his good cross from the left should have at least have been helped towards the target by Jamie Duffy.

The hosts had two glorious opportunities to open their account nine minutes into the second half as both Keddy and Mark O’Brien missed volley attempts set up by the increasingly influential Georgescu.

There was no doubt the Reds should have taken the lead when an excellent Freeman corner found Flood unmarked just yards from goal only for the former Dundalk man to head straight at the Lilywhites’ goalkeeper, Chris Bennion.

Flood was guilty of spurning another golden chance in the 68th minute. Freeman was again the provider as he knocked a clever ball over the top for the Shels number nine to run on to but Flood’s attempted lob cleared the Dundalk crossbar by a distance.

Crowley then caused Shels’ hearts to flutter when his powerful shot cleared Delaney’s left post with the ‘keeper well and truly beaten.

Flood’s poor night came to an end when Shelbourne manager Dermot Keely decided to replace him with Gary McCabe with just under 20 minutes left on the clock. The frontman remains the division’s top scorer with 13 goals, but he has not now found the net since scoring the winner against Wexford Youths on 30 May. It is not surprising that his five-game barren streak has coincided with his side’s five-game run without a win.

The breakthrough almost came with just over ten minutes remaining when a Freeman free-kick wasn’t dealt with by the Louth side and Keddy’s shot on the turn was too high for Georgescu to get a touch and too wide to find the target.

Freeman then fluffed his lines in the dying moments to ensure that the visitors would enjoy their return trip up the M1, while Shels were left to ponder what might have been.

It was not all bad for the Dubliners, however, as Georgescu’s impressive debut and a season-high crowd of 1,473 were two positives to take from the night.

Shelbourne: Delaney; Chambers, Keely (c) (Byrne, 40 mins), Laurence, Hedderman; Georgescu, O’Brien, McGill, Keddy; Flood (McCabe, 71), Chambers.

Dundalk: Bennion; Flanagan (c), Ryan, Whelehan, Crawley; Duffy (Crowley, 59 mins), Shiels, Cassidy, Smyth (O’Connor, 64); Vaughan (Farrell, 78), Mulvenna.

Referee: Ian Stokes.