A stunning 83rd minute strike from Jack Byrne saw Shamrock Rovers draw first blood in their battle to prise the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division title from Dundalk's grasp in a pulsating game at Tallaght Stadium.
The Republic of Ireland international was inspirational as Stephen Bradley’s side came from 2-1 down with 27 minutes remaining to maintain their 100% start to the season and move three points clear at the top of the table.
While nothing will be decided after just four matches, particularly as these sides have still to meet three more times this season, victory in front of a record crowd for a league match at Tallaght Stadium of 7,522 is a significant psychological boost on the back of the Hoops’ FAI Cup final victory over the reigning league champions last November.
A five-goal thriller between @ShamrockRovers and @DundalkFC in Tallaght as the Hoops moved clear at the top of the table - including that @JordanFlores199 screamer & a @jackb_8 belter. pic.twitter.com/j9SSzGs50d— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) February 29, 2020
Despite Dylan Watts firing them in front on 20 minutes, this result looked unlikely when the visitors levelled with a stunning volley from Jordan Flores two minutes later before Patrick Hoban put his side in front on 63 minutes.
Rovers were not to be denied though. A Roberto Lopes header from Byrne’s corner had them level within eight minutes before Byrne stepped up himself to secure a huge three points in a game which was a fantastic advertisement for the domestic game.
Like a true heavyweight joust, the two sides began by feeling each other out in the opening minutes. It was Rovers who soon gained the upper hand, however, and they should have taken the lead on 17 minutes.
Shamrock Rovers 1-1 Dundalk - Wow! Jordan Flores scores a goal of the season contender to level things at Tallaght. You'll be watching this goal for years to come. #rtesoccer #dundalk #greatestleagueintheworld pic.twitter.com/WHSzbWb1I7— Soccer Republic (@SoccRepublic) February 28, 2020
Watts’ ball down the right hand touchline saw Aaron Greene burst clear as Dundalk attempted to play the offside trap. He then cut in from the right with only Gary Rogers to beat but curled his left foot effort agonisingly to the left and wide.
The breakthrough did arrive three minutes later though.
Byrne released Ronan Finn down the right in behind Dane Massey with his cross picking out Watts at the near post. The former UCD player’s initial effort was blocked by Sean Hoare but the rebound came back to him and with Rogers committed to the initial effort he had the simple task of tapping in to an almost empty net.
The lead would last less than two minutes, however, as Flores levelled matters with a goal of the season contender on 22 minutes. Michael Duffy fizzed a corner into the box with the 24-year-old Englishman finding space at the back post before somehow getting his leg up to it before producing tremendous technique to volley high to the net past Alan Mannus.
That strike turned the tide in the game with Vinny Perth’s side largely on top for the remainder of the half. Indeed, they almost took the lead on 32 minutes when Cammy Smith twisted and turned in the box to get a shot away only to see it blocked on the line by Lee Grace.
Then a minute later Mannus was called into action to touch Duffy’s free kick over the bar.
Byrne, under the watchful eye of Mick McCarthy and his assistant Terry Connor, did have a chance from a free kick in stoppage time at the end of the half to restore Rovers’ lead but blazed over.
Greene then went closer with another free that flashed just over Rogers’ bar within two minutes of the restart before Aaron McEneff fizzed another just wide of the left hand post shortly after.
The bookings were beginning to build for Dundalk at this point with Chris Shields, Flores and Patrick Hoban all receiving yellow cards within six minutes as Rovers really piled on the pressure. The home side went close again on 54 minutes when a corner from Byrne picked out Neil Farrugia unmarked but the Irish U21 international could only glance his header to the right and wide.
Dundalk then took the lead somewhat against the run of play on 63 minutes with substitute Daniel Kelly slipping Hoban in behind Lopes before the striker showed calmness personified to dink past the advancing Mannus.
Greene then had two big chances to level in quick succession. On 66 minutes it took a combination of Rogers and Boyle to prevent him from turning in substitute Rory Gaffney’s cross. He then went even closer three minutes later when he headed past Rogers only for Boyle to hack the ball off the line.
The equaliser did come on 71 minutes, however, with Lopes meeting Byrne’s corner to head home at the near post despite Rogers getting a hand to it.
Byrne then went close 10 minutes later when he cut in from the left onto his right foot before curling inches the wrong side of the top right hand corner.
He would find the net on 83 minutes however as he dealt the knock-out blow to Dundalk with a curling left foot shot from 25 yards that crashed to the bottom left hand corner.
Daniel Kelly did have a chance to level on 94 minutes but his header from Shields’ cross was kept out by Mannus as Rovers held on for a huge early season win.
Shamrock Rovers: Alan Mannus; Joey O'Brien (Liam Scales 13), Roberto Lopes, Lee Grace; Greg Bolger, Aaron McEneff; Ronan Finn, Dylan Watts (Rory Gaffney 64); Jack Byrne, Neil Farrugia; Aaron Greene. Subs not used: Leon Pohls, Danny Lafferty, Sean Callan, Dean Williams, Brandon Kavanagh.
Dundalk: Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Sean Hoare, Andy Boyle, Dane Massey; Chris Shields, Greg Sloggett (Georgie Kelly 85); Cammy Smith (Will Patching 77), Jordan Flores (Daniel Kelly 58), Michael Duffy; Patrick Hoban. Subs not used: Aaron McCarey, Brian Gartland, Daniel Cleary, Stefan Colovic.
Referee: Rob Hennessy (Limerick).