Sean Gannon and Daniel Kelly combined yet again as treble-chasing Dundalk extended their unbeaten domestic run to 31 games with a 1-0 win over Derry City in their Airtricity League Premier Division clash at Oriel Park.
With the league title and EA Sports Cup already in the bag, it would have been understandable if the champions had an off-night, but they inflicted a serious blow on Derry's European hopes when Kelly met a cross from his Ringsend neighbour to claim his 13th goal of the season.
Three of the previous six meetings between these sides ended in a draw, so it was no surprise to see them go in all-square at the end of a first half that was enjoyable enough, despite the lack of clear-cut chances.
Dundalk almost hit the front in spectacular fashion with nine minutes played when Patrick Hoban knocked a Chris Shields pass Into the path of Kelly, but his first-time volley flew just wide of Peter Cherrie’s upright.
Barry McNamee bent a free-kick just wide of Gary Rogers’ right-hand post just three minutes later and the Derry skipper should have punished a mix-up between Brian Gartland and Chris Shields shortly after, but he snatched at his effort and pulled it badly wide in the end.
The pace, and tackling, never let up as the half developed, making for an entertaining opening half an hour.
One such challenge ended with Greg Sloggett, who has been linked with a move to Oriel Park in recent weeks, colliding accidentally into Chris Shields.
Despite trying to run off the knock, the Derry midfielder was forced to limp off with 32 minutes played with Grant Gillespie, who was sent off in the EA Sports Cup final last month, coming on to replace him.
Things did become a bit flat after that, but both of the number nines on display had sightings of the target before the break with Derry’s top scorer, David Parkhouse, who had a third-minute strike ruled out for offside, stinging the palms of Rogers with a half-volley that lacked direction.
His counterpart was denied at the other end in the 41st minute, Peter Cherrie making a brilliant stop to keep Hoban’s close-range header out from a floating Gannon centre.
With the FAI Cup final just four weeks away, Robbie Benson’s return to fitness has come at a good time for the champions and he almost broke the stalemate here, curling a neat effort just wide on the opening minutes of the second half.
Jamie McDonagh and Ciaron Harkin both saw speculative attempts go off target and things became extremely scrappy after that before Dundalk made the breakthrough with 64 minutes on the clock. Substitute Lido Lotefa played a big part, the teenager playing the ball out for Gannon whose cross was swept home at the far post by the incoming Kelly.
Declan Devine was up in arms six minutes later when Junior went down under pressure from Gartland in the penalty area but referee Neil Doyle, who also said no to a valid looking Dundalk appeal just seconds before the goal, waved play on.
Gannon and Kelly almost combined yet again in the 73rd minute but this time the winger couldn’t adjust his feet and the visitors almost snatched a precious point in their next attack but Gillespie saw his drive cannon back off the post.
Dundalk: Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Brian Gartland, Andy Boyle, Cameron Dummigan; Chris Shields, Robbie Benson; Daniel Kelly (Mark Hanratty 87), Sean Murray (Georgie Kelly 76), Michael Duffy (Lido Lotefa 60); Patrick Hoban.
Derry City: Peter Cherrie; Jamie McDonagh, Eoin Toal, Ally Gilchrist, Ciaran Coll; Greg Sloggett (Grant Gillespie 31), Ciaron Harkin; Darren McCauley (Conor Davis 57), Barry McNamee (Michael McCrudden 80), Junior Ogedi Ozokwe; David Parkhouse.
Referee: Neil Doyle.