Daniel Cleary's late goal catapulted Dundalk back into the conversation for European qualification – and left Drogheda looking nervously over their shoulder as the 167th Louth derby was settled in the visitors' favour at Head In The Game Park.

The centre-back, who missed a sizeable chunk of the season through injury, picked the perfect time to notch his first goal of the season.

He didn’t know much about it – the ball hitting his midriff after a David Odumosu save – but there will be few complaints in the convoys northbound on the M1 on Thursday night.

Vinny Perth’s team now sit just two points shy of Derry City in fourth position – which should St Pat’s win the FAI Cup, would be enough to qualify for European competition in 2022. With Longford Town to come to Oriel Park on Sunday, they are looking up.

FULL MATCH DETAILS

Dundalk could call on one player in particular who relishes the derby atmosphere. Michael Duffy arrived at Head In The Game Park having scored in six of the seven games he’s played against Drogheda since he joined the club ahead of the 2017 campaign.

Sam Stanton returned in place of the injured Greg Sloggett while Cameron Dummigan also came in.

United captain James Brown has been a standout performer for Tim Clancy’s team in 2021 but would again have his hands full at right wing-back with Duffy his direct opponent.

Daniel O'Reilly's header was chalked off by the referee

That formation has served Drogheda well in their first season back in the top-flight. It allowed Clancy to name former Dundalk favourite Dane Massey in a three-man central defensive core. However, Chris Lyons only made the bench having missed Monday’s stalemate against Finn Harps.

After three seasons in the First Division and with supporters locked out of the three clashes earlier in the year, fans of both clubs were finally able to reacquaint themselves with the unique taste of this rivalry.

Rarely in recent times has the fixture held such significance – especially when you consider in Drogheda’s last season in the Premier Division, they finished 17 points adrift of safety and Dundalk relatively distant runners-up to Cork City at the summit.

The stakes rose even more so with both clubs in direct competition with resurgent Waterford and the seemingly unshakable Finn Harps to avoid the relegation play-off.

Neither goalkeeper had a save or note to make in a first half that had endeavour aplenty but lacked finesse in the final third. Patrick Hoban and Sean Murray made nothing of two headers during a lively but even start.

Dundalk's players and supporters celebrate after Cleary's late winner

That said, the respective nets did bulge at both ends only for supporter elation to be burst by referee Rob Harvey’s whistle. First, Daniel O’Reilly saw a header from Ronan Muray’s corner ruled out. The defender was penalised for a push.

Minutes later, Andy Boyle met Michael Duffy’s free-kick with a firm header. It beat David Odumosu but again, Harvey whistled.

The visitors began the second half brighter but didn’t test the Drogheda rearguard too much – bar an eye-catching Will Patching effort. His 30-yard sighter swerved wickedly in the air. Odumosu could only parry onto the crossbar. The ball bounced back gratefully into his arms.

It looked as if the derby would end in stalemate until Cleary’s late intervention.

Drogheda United: David Odumosu; Joe Redmond, Daniel O’Reilly, Dane Massey; James Brown, Gary Deegan, Killian Phillips, Conor Kane; Ronan Murray (Chris Lyons, 64); Darragh Markey (Dinny Corcoran, 87), Mark Doyle.

Dundalk: Peter Cherrie; Cameron Dummigan, Daniel Cleary, Andy Boyle, Darragh Leahy; Sam Stanton, Sean Murray (Sonni Nattestad, 90+2); Daniel Kelly (Sami Ben Amar, 90), Will Patching, Michael Duffy; Patrick Hoban (David McMillan, 83).

Referee: Rob Harvey (Dublin).