Dundalk 2-0 Cork City
The SSE Airtricity League season came to a fairytale end as Stephen O’Donnell, who was told his playing career was over after suffering a serious knee injury against Shamrock Rovers earlier in the season, led Dundalk to the title with an inspirational display against Cork City at Oriel Park.
O’Donnell scored the first goal after 48 minutes to swing the pendulum Dundalk’s way, and Brian Gartland secured the crown for Stephen Kenny’s men with a late strike that ensured the Lilywhites finished two points ahead of their opponents.
Oriel Park was already a sea of colour and noise when the teams came out to warm up and the first big cheer of the night came when it was announced that O’Donnell was named in the Dundalk team, the midfielder making his first start since 18 April.
For the visitors, Gearoid Morrissey, who missed the previous three games, was included and he was immediately involved, getting stuck into O’Donnell after just four seconds, drawing one of the quickest fouls of the 2014 season.
It was the league leaders who threatened initially and the home side were let off the hook early on when Buckley capitalised on a misplaced Gartland pass to slip Billy Dennehy in behind the Dundalk back four, but the winger’s touch let him down and the ball rolled through to Peter Cherrie.
With so much at stake, it was inevitable that tempers would flare and Buckley found himself in referee Neil Doyle’s book for a crude foul on O’Donnell after just four minutes. Darren Dennehy followed seconds later under the instruction of the assistant on the near side, much to the annoyance of John Caulfield.
Caulfield’s opposite number was forced into a reshuffle after nine minutes when combative midfielder Chris Shields limped off. He was replaced by Ruaidhri Higgins, who, like his manager, had unsettled business with Cork City, dating back from their final-day loss with Derry City back in 2005.
Higgins and co played second fiddle to Colin Healy in the middle of the park for the remainder of the half. The former senior international was instrumental again, finding Billy Dennehy in a pocket of space with a great pass, but the shot lacked direction.
The game came to life in the 33rd minute and the Leesiders went within inches of taking the lead.
Healy did brilliantly to dispossess O’Donnell in the middle of the park before feeding John O’Flynn on the right. His cross deserved to be tucked away but Mark O’Sullivan, under pressure from Gartland, could only divert it wide.
Seconds later, Dundalk were asking questions at the other end. Darren Meenan, who endured a frustrating first half, flashed in a cross from the right but O’Donnell couldn’t keep his effort down.
Daryl Horgan then gave the home support more encouragement when he shot over the top before Mark McNulty got down well to stop a Dane Massey drive as the home side looked to seize the initiative.
Their bid to gain the upper hand almost went up in smoke in the 39th minute. Andy Boyle’s foul on Garry Buckley allowed Billy Dennehy the chance to have a pop at goal. The free-kick beat Cherrie but not the woodwork, the butt of the post denying the Tralee man his 18th goal of the season.
The first half ended with Daryl Horgan’s forceful run forcing his old club back into their own half. The ball broke to Richie Towell but his half-volley landed in the temporary stand behind the goals and the half ended with Cork City still in pole position.
The defining twist in the title race arrived three minutes after the restart. Patrick Hoban showed great strength to hold the ball up on the edge of the Cork City penalty area and his lay off was swept home by the left foot of O’Donnell.
Dundalk pushed for a second and the captain headed just wide from a Hoban cross before Horgan tested McNulty with a well struck attempt.
Caulfield emptied his bench and two of his substitutes almost combined for an 81st minute equaliser that would have swung the pendulum back to Cork. John Kavanagh powered his way down the right and swung in a vicious cross but Rob Lehane’s header just whistled past the far post.
The miss was to prove even more crucial as Dundalk all but secured the title a minute later. City failed to clear a free-kick from the left and Gartland popped up in the ensuing goalmouth scramble to find the bottom corner and spark wild celebrations at Oriel Park.
Healy saw a half volley go wide as the visitors tried to find a way back into it but Dundalk saw it out to end their 19-year wait for the title.
Dundalk FC: Peter Cherrie; Sean Gannon, Brian Gartland, Andy Boyle, Dane Massey; Chris Shields (Ruaidhri Higgins 9), Stephen O’Donnell; Darren Meenan (John Mountney 76), Richie Towell, Daryl Horgan; Patrick Hoban (Kurtis Byrne 89).
Cork City: Mark McNulty; Michael McSweeney, Dan Murray, Darren Dennehy, John Dunleavy; Gearoid Morrissey (John Kavanagh 63), Colin Healy, Garry Buckley (Rob Lehane 73); John O’Flynn (Josh O’Shea 63), Mark O’Sullivan, Billy Dennehy.
Referee: Neil Doyle.