Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Much like the celebratory title bubbly, still frustratingly iced tonight, Dundalk were Corked here. Stephen Kenny’s side tried, and failed, to beat the Leesiders at their own game. In the end, a scantly-deserved point proved a fortunate, but probably meaningless, outcome.
Dundalk dominate early
Let’s be fair: Dundalk’s compact shape, and aggressive midfield-press, worked to a point. The Lilywhites shaded the game’s chance-free opening quarter, thwarting Cork City’s midfield with an unusually high defensive-line.
The visitors’ early possession dominance mired Shane Griffin in continual one-on-one combat with Dylan Connolly. The former Bray Wanderer’s dribbling, and foul-drawing, appeared a harbinger of doom for Cork; but his final-ball was poor.
So was his discipline. Conor McCormack’s positional switch, to Gearoid Morrissey’s left, saw a huffy Connolly nullified. And the 22-year-old’s defensive transitioning was just as poor as his body language.
Fortunately for Connolly, none of the game’s four full-backs were minded to advance with any regularity. But, if Garry Buckley’s trademark back-post almost-opener was on the other foot, you can bet that Jimmy Keohane would have made his penalty-box presence felt.
Cork wrest back control
Brian Gartland’s Buckley-inspired own-goal was created by one of several clever inward drifts from Stephen Dooley, who made hay in the pocket behind Robbie Benson. A Dooley lofted through-ball also created Keohane’s first-half sitter; one of two instances Dundalk’s high-line almost came acropper.
The other? The ridiculous yellow-card a visibly nervous Rob Rogers showed Sean Hoare for arresting Keohane’s goalward run; a run that resulted from a Patrick McEleney turnover, forced by Cork’s rampant press.
McEleney’s permanence on the periphery of this game, as is often the case at Turner’s Cross, sums up why Cork ultimately wrested control of it. Simply put, Caulfield’s players are better suited to a high-tempo game of this nature, where space is at an absolute premium.
The former Derry City man, a natural number-10, was starved of service by Cork’s effective high-press, sure. But, when he did receive the ball, he invariably found himself quickly dispossessed. McEleney was a complete non-factor out of possession too, in a game defined by midfield-pressing.
Lilywhites pale in comparison
Contrast the Derryman’s performance with that of his opposite number, Buckley, a converted number-eight. Ignoring the imperiousness of a tireless McCormack for a moment, Buckley’s willingness to form a midfield-five, in defensive situations, was arguably key to Cork’s upper-hand.
The 24-year-old’s control, and use of, the football in tight spaces was also impressive; using his strength and determination to avoid being pushed off the ball. And, of course, Buckley also excelled off the ball in attack, spurning two further gilt-edged back-post opportunities.
McEleney was not alone in paling in comparison, from a tactical and physical perspective. While Dooley was comfortable drifting into the central chaos to pick up possession, Michael Duffy was invisible.
Sure, Connolly eventually crafted Benson’s late equaliser, after finally getting Griffin alone again. But otherwise he was sullen, while Keohane assiduously took up clever centre-forward positions.
With both strikers pushed upfield, and forced to play with back-to-goal, even David McMillan was surprisingly outshone by Karl Sheppard. The former Shamrock Rovers man rolled back the years, dragging Sean Hoare into the right-channel, and drawing fouls-from-behind from Gartland.
Incredibly, Cork continued to implement Caulfield’s main blueprint in the second-half. As late as the 68th-minute, Buckley could be seen pressing Gartland out of possession near the left-touchline.
And, as if to further underline his side’s physical superiority on the night, Caulfield neglected to make a single substitution. And it’s not as if one looked necessary either.
In short, Cork were challenged at their own game, on their own patch, and they responded with a characteristically resilient performance, worthy of winning any title. Benson’s late equaliser may have spoiled the party — for now — but not the narrative.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112