Part profligacy and part determined opposition cost Shamrock Rovers another two points at Tallaght Stadium on Friday night as they were pegged back by Cork City in a thrilling finish to proceedings in front of a big, noisy crowd.
Heading into the midsummer break, a win would have been the perfect tonic for the champions but John Dunleavy’s 88th minute header just three minutes after Gary Twigg had given the Hoops a deserved lead meant that the buffer between the Tallaght side and current leaders Sligo Rovers, who could only draw with Bohemians, remains at seven points entering the three week break.
There was a fantastic atmosphere inside the ground even before the game got underway, the Rovers fans remembering well-known supporter Joe Merriman with a flare display and an emotional minute’s applause, while the big travelling support from Leeside were also keen to have their voices heard.
Those in attendance were treated to a game befitting the feel of such a big occasion and although it remained scoreless up until the 85th minute, there were plenty of thrills and spills from the outset.
Unfortunately, some erratic refereeing from Rob Rogers threatened to spoil the game at times – Cork denied a stonewall penalty nearing the hour mark after Billy Dennehy hauled down Tadhg Purcell, along with some very soft bookings on both sides – but apart from the man in the middle becoming the centre of attention, the fare on show was still a joy to watch.
Daryl Kavanagh had the first opportunity on goal, scuffing wide on seven minutes and although the travelling team enjoyed a slightly larger spell of possession in the opening 10 the only half-attempt they garnered came from Purcell, the former Hoop hammering way over.
Another to have played with both clubs, Dennehy, headed over from Gary McCabe’s free with 16 played, though the best opportunity of the opening half came from Twigg when the home side’s top marksman nodded back across goal and mere inches wide of Mark McNulty’s left-hand post.
Vinny Sullivan struck tamely at Oscar Jansson on 22 but it was the champions that continued to carve out the better opportunities. Gavin Kavanagh made a superb block after Twigg pulled the trigger coming up to the half hour mark, while Dennehy also flung his boot at a speculative attempt which was never going to bother McNulty. It remained scoreless at the break, though Daryl Kavanagh and Vinny Sullivan did force both keepers to work in injury time.
The entertainment level had been set at a high level despite the lack of goals and that pattern continued from the very beginning of the second half. Craig Sives grazed the bar two minutes after the interval despite giving away a free out for pushing inside the area as Rovers turned up the pressure.
Soon after a last ditch block from Colin Healy as Gary McCabe drove towards goal kept it level but you could sense that Stephen Kenny’s men were turning the screw. Ronan Finn was next to have a go, rattling the woodwork before the travelling side were left irate when Rogers ignored their calls for a spotter.
Assistant manager Billy Woods was sent from the dugout for his passionate reaction, though the complaints were certainly justified as the Leesiders are unlikely to see a clearer cut penalty denied all season. Nonetheless, it added another sub-plot to a fascinating storyline.
Rovers maintained their pressure as time wore on and Cork fell deeper and deeper. Dennehy planted a well positioned free on the edge of the area down McNulty’s throat before spurning a magnificent chance to break the deadlock when left unmarked at the back-post on 70 only to head over with the goal opening up from in front of him.
Twigg wasted another glorious chance after latching on to Conor McCormack’s cross with 11 remaining but the chances kept coming and eventually the Scot put one home. Conor Powell evaded Daryl Horgan’s good challenge before playing to Aaron Greene. The sub sent in an inviting cross to the big striker and he rose home to expertly direct past a diving McNulty.
There was to be one last twist in the tale however as three minutes later Cork broke, Purcell’s cross from the right was met by the head of John Dunleavy and the Donegal man steered home with both precision and power to ensure a stalemate.
Shamrock Rovers: Oscar Jannson; Kerrea Gilbert, Craig Sives (Colin Hawkins 61), Graham Gartland, Conor Powell; Gary McCabe, Ronan Finn, Conor McCormack, Billy Dennehy; Gary Twigg, Daryl Kavanagh (Aaron Greene 72).
Subs not used: Reyaad Pieterse, Stephen Rice, Stephen O’Donnell, Gary O’Neill, Killian Brennan.
Booked: Twigg (37), McCormack (57), Gilbert (67).
Cork City: Mark McNulty; Colin Healy, Gavin Kavanagh, Kalen Spillane, John Dunleavy; Daryl Horgan (Ian Turner 90), Shane Duggan, Gearóid Morrissey, Davin O’Neill; Vinny Sullivan (Stephen Kenny 90), Tadhg Purcell.
Subs not used: Kevin Burns, Dan Murray, Cathal Lordan, Garry Buckley, Stephen Carroll.
Booked: Spillane (24), McNulty (30), Healy (45).
Referee: Rob Rogers.
Attendance: 3500 (est).
ExtraTime.ie Man of the Match: Colin Healy (Cork City).
Alan Smith works as a sub-editor for the Guardian newspaper in London. Originally from Cork, he freelances for several other newspapers and websites. Follow him on twitter @alansmith90.