Dundalk battled back to rescue what could prove to be a precious point against 10-man Waterford FC at Oriel Park last night.

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Late headers from Patrick Hoban and Daniel Cleary rescued what looked like the most unlikely of draws after goals from Matthew Smith and Kurtis Byrne looked like giving the visitors their first away win at the Co Louth venue since 2003.

While a third game without victory since the restart means the champions could be 10 points behind Shamrock Rovers by the end of the weekend, the fightback shown will at least give manager Vinny Perth some hope ahead of his side's trip to Hungary for Wednesday’s Champions League first qualifying round tie with Slovenian champions NK Celje.

The turning point came on 78 minutes when Ali Coote was shown a second yellow card having been booked 15 minutes earlier for a foul on substitute Sean Murray, who would go on to create both of his side's goals.

Prior to that John Sheridan’s men looked full value for the win but the sending off changed the game with the Lilywhites unlucky not to win it in the end as Cleary hit the crossbar deep in stoppage time.

Despite a sluggish start, the hosts had the first couple of chances in the game with top scorer Hoban flashing a shot just wide of Brian Murphy’s post on five minutes before the goalkeeper was called into action to save a drilled effort from Chris Shields on 23 minutes.

Within a minute Waterford had the lead with their first shot of the game.

Daniel Cleary, Sean Gannon and John Mountney were all drawn to Tyreke Wilson at the edge of the box but he somehow managed to slip Smith in who cut inside Sean Hoare to slot past Gary Rogers.

Either side of a header from Cleary that was saved by Murphy, both sides were dealt an injury blow with Mountney and Murphy limping off.

Still trailing at the break, Perth made a triple change at the start of the second half with recent recruits Nathan Oduwa, Joshua Gatt and David McMillan brought on as the home side opted for a 3-4-2-1 formation.

Whatever plans Dundalk had were quickly unravelled, however, on 50 minutes when the Blues doubled their lead. A sloppy pass was picked up on by Byrne who made no mistake to fire to the bottom left hand corner.

That goal was a hammer blow to the Louth men who struggled to trouble substitute Tadgh Ryan after that.

Perhaps their best chance of pulling a goal back came on 68 minutes when Gatt broke free up the right to cross for McMillan, who flashed a header to the left and wide.

They were given some hope 10 minutes later when Waterford were reduced to 10 men after Coote picked up a second yellow card for a late challenge on substitute Will Patching.

That lifeline looked like it would emerge when Hoban rose to meet Murray’s corner to make it 2-1 with seven minutes left.

Then up popped Cleary in the 91st minute as he flicked on Murray’s corner with the effort creeping through the legs of Ryan.

Dundalk could have won it after that with Cleary rattling the crossbar with a header from another Murray delivery before Ryan pulled off a brilliant follow up save to deny Gannon.

It’s looking increasingly unlikely that Dundalk - with just 10 games to go - can retain their title but the spirit shown at the end will hopefully stand them in good stead against Celje.

Dundalk FC: Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Daniel Cleary, Sean Hoare, Dane Massey (Nathan Oduwa HT); Chris Shields, John Mountney (Sean Murray 27); Stefan Colovic (Joshua Gatt HT), Patrick McEleney (Will Patching 70), Michael Duffy (David McMillan HT); Patrick Hoban.

Waterford FC: Brian Murphy (Tadgh Ryan 43); Sam Bone, Jake Davidson, Robbie McCourt; Oluwatunmise Sobowale, Ali Coote, Robert Weir, Tyreke Wilson, Matthew Smith; Kurtis Byrne (Will Fitzgerald 82), Michael O’Connor. 

Referee: Ray Matthews (Westmeath).