Dundalk lost precious ground at the top of the SEE Airtricity League as their eight game unbeaten run came to an end with a 1-0 defeat to Bray Wanderers on Friday evening.
Dave Scully’s second-half header was enough for the Seagulls to topple their superiorly-ranked opponents, as Stephen Kenny’s side slipped to third in the standings.
The Lilywhites were made to rue an abject performance and a host of missed opportunities as Alan Mathews’ men ran out deserving winners at the Carlisle Grounds.
Four changes to the side that won in Athlone on Monday didn’t help Dundalk’s cause, but they failed to shown the same level of energy, incisiveness and defensive solidity that has been the benchmark of their season to date.
The absence of Stephen O’Donnell in the engine room was conspicuous while Richie Towell and Daryl Horgan were near anonymous for much of the 90 minutes.
Nothing can be taken from the hosts, however, as they climb to seventh in the table thanks to just their third win of the campaign.
Having blown hot and cold so far this term, the Seagulls looked to catch their opponents off-guard as they started with purpose and energy.
It was the visitors, however, who had the better of the opening exchanges. Dave McMillan, who was preferred to Pat Hoban in the lone striker role, collected Sean Gannon’s centre smartly, but his low effort was turned behind by Stephen McGuinness.
Neither side managed to govern proceedings during a scrappy opening quarter, but the game jolted into life halfway through the first period.
David Cassidy managed to find a pocket of space, in an otherwise compact midfield, to play Shane O’Neill in behind Gannon and having out-muscled the right-back, O’Neill saw his dipping volley acrobatically tipped over by Peter Cherrie.
At the other end, Kurtis Byrne’s set-piece somehow found it’s way through to the unmarked Brian Gartland, who couldn’t quite get enough contact on it to divert past McGuinness.
The Bray defence didn’t learn from their mistake, as moments later, former Seagull Dane Massey was left unattended from another corner, but McGuinness, once again, maintained parity with a smart stop.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic, though. Under Mathews, Bray’s blueprint has been conspicuous; soak up the pressure and hit the opposition with swift and direct counter-attack.
Out of nothing, Ismahil Akinade had Gartland back-pedalling and after brushing off the defender, Akinade weaved past Andy Boyle to create the opening. Cherrie was equal to the task, however, as he got the slightest of touches to the striker’s curling effort.
The Dundalk ‘keeper was being kept busy by the hosts. Shortly before the interval, Dean Zambra ghosted in behind the line of white shirts, but was thwarted by Cherrie.
Bray were nearly made to pay for squandering those opportunities, as two minutes before the break, Kenny’s side went close twice. Gartland’s initial effort was parried by McGuinness into the path of McMillan but he fluffed his lines with the goal at his mercy before Adam Mitchell headed against his own bar from 30 yards, narrowly avoiding what would have undoubtedly been the own goal of the season.
Darren Meenan’s introduction, for the below-par Daryl Horgan, after half-time resulted in a reshape but failed to alter proceedings as Bray took a stranglehold. Akinade’s header was hacked off the line, but the Lilywhites were powerless to prevent the hosts from hitting the front on 64 minutes as Scully rose highest to power Kelly’s outswinger past Cherrie.
The Seagulls had all the momentum and instead of sitting back went in search of the knockout blow.
Twice they had goalbound shots blocked as Dundalk’s defence faced a thorough appraisal.
In a last throw of the dice, Kenny threw Pat Hoban and John Mountney into the fray in quick succession, but neither could make the telling impact he would have hoped for.
A late rally never ensued as Dundalk limped to defeat.
Bray Wanderers: Stephen McGuinness; Niall Cooney, Adam Mitchell, Dave Webster, Robert Maloney; Dean Zambra, Graham Kelly, David Cassidy, Shane O’Neill (Adam Hanlon, 84), David Scully; Ismahil Akinade (Ciaran Byrne, 92).
Subs not used: Shane Redmond, Shane Byrne, Jamie McGlynn, Gary Curran, Eric McGill.
Dundalk: Peter Cherrie; Sean Gannon, Brian Gartland, Andy Boyle, Dane Massey; Chris Shields, Kurtis Byrne (John Mountney, 78), Richie Towell, Ruaidhri Higgins (Patrick Hoban, 69), Daryl Horgan (Darren Meenan, 58); David McMillan.
Subs not used: Gabriel Sava, Mark Griffin, Mark Rossiter, Simon Kelly.
Referee: Dave McKeon.