Second half strikes from Stephen O’Donnell and Brian Gartland proved decisive as Dundalk seen off Cork City 2-0 at Oriel Park tonight o secure their tenth SSE Airtricity League Premier Division title.
Stephen Kenny’s side came into the game knowing nothing short of victory would suffice to land their first title triumph since 1995.
However, their third victory over John Caulfield’s side this season ensured they pipped the Leesiders to the title by two points in what was a repeat of the 1991 decider.
The key moment came three minutes into the second half when Stephen O’Donnell fired the home side in front with a low strike from 20 yards out.
It was a fairytale return to action for the 28-year-old, who was making his first start since returning from a potentially career threatening injury. The Galway man – who picked up his third league winners’ medal at the end – was told he would never play again after rupturing his anterior knee ligament against Shamrock Rovers on Good Friday.
However, a remarkable return in recent weeks after just six months out was capped off with his second league goal of the season in the 48th minute.
Despite Cork City going close in either half, they lacked the firepower to find the goal they so badly needed with Dundalk all but sealing the title three minutes from time when Gartland scrambled home his ninth league goal of the season to cap a famous victory for the Lilywhites.
Needing the win, it was the home side who did much of the early probing. That said, it was the Leesiders who posed much of the early threat.
Billy Dennehy was unlucky that his first touch was too heavy after being slipped through by Garry Buckley on four minutes while the first real chance of note also fell Cork’s way on 33 minutes.
John O’Flynn found space on the right to cross, with Mark O’Sullivan getting the deftest flick to it only to see his effort creep inches the wrong side of the post.
That let-off sparked Dundalk into life with Darren Meenan breaking clear on the right within seconds at the other end. His near post cross evaded Daryl Horgan only to break to O’Donnell but the Lilywhites captain could only fire over under pressure from Colin Healy.
Horgan then fired over after cutting in off the left before Mark McNulty was forced into the first save of the game on 36 minutes when he got down low to keep out Dane Massey’s effort, which came about after a slip from Cork skipper John Dunleavy.
It was the visitors who went closest to breaking the deadlock in the 39th minute, however, when Billy Dennehy’s free crept under a seven man wall only to strike the butt of the post.
Richie Towell then fired just over with an attempt to chip McNulty a minute before the break as the sides went off at the break with everything still very much in the balance.
Dundalk had to wait less than three minutes after the restart before finding themselves in the driving seat though. Towell held the ball up for O’Donnell to latch onto, with his strike from 20 yards creeping past McNulty at his left hand upright to send Oriel Park into hysterics.
The same player almost added a second in the 54th minute when he got his head on the end of a cross from Patrick Hoban only to see it creep inches the wrong side of the same post he had scored at minutes earlier.
Horgan then got a shot away from 25 yards four minutes later but it was well stopped low to his left by McNulty.
Two substitutes almost combined to bring Cork level in the 80th minute. John Kavanagh broke down the right with his cross being flicked on at the near post by Rob Lehane, whose effort was inches away from finding the far corner of the net.
That miss was to prove all the more costly when Dundalk doubled their advantage two minutes later. Ruaidhrí Higgins’ free wasn’t dealt with by the Cork defence and when it broke to Gartland, he made no mistake by toe poking to the net from eight yards.
The title was Dundalk’s, with the country’s most successful provincial club on top of the pile for the 10th time in their history.
Dundalk: Cherrie; Gannon, Gartland, Boyle, Massey; Meenan (Mountney 77), Shields (Higgins 9), O’Donnell, Horgan; Towell; Hoban (Byrne 90). Subs not used: Griffin, Rossiter, McDermott, Sava.
Cork City: McNulty; Dunleavy, Murray, D Dennehy, McSweeney; O’Flynn (O’Shea 63), Healy, Morrissey (J Kavanagh 62), Buckley (Lehane 73), B Dennehy; O’Sullivan. Subs not used: G Kavanagh, O’Leary, O’Brien, Kearney.
Referee: N Doyle (Dublin).