Thirty-five years ago today, April 21st 1988, we won our seventh League of Ireland title when Dessie Gorman’s first-half header secured Dundalk a 1-1 draw with St Patrick’s Athletic at Oriel Park. We take a look back at an evening of incredible tension that ended in scenes of joy.
One of the most dramatic League of Ireland title races in history came to a thrilling finale at Oriel Park on Thursday, April 21st 1988.
With 45 points in the bank, Dundalk went into the game against Brian Kerr’s Pat’s knowing that a point was all they needed to end a six-year wait for the league title. For the visitors, it was simple, win and take the trophy back to Inchicore for the first time since 1956.
A third party was also involved. Bohemians, who finished their campaign the previous weekend, started the night level on points with Dundalk and were hoping for a positive result – one way or the other – to secure UEFA Cup football the following season. A draw was the last thing that Billy Young’s men wanted!
The signs were good for Dundalk. Just four days earlier, Turlough O’Connor’s men battered Pat’s on their own patch and, inspired by Barry Kehoe, ran out 3-0 winners in the FAI Cup semi-final second-leg at Richmond Park to book their place in the final against Derry City.
The pendulum, however, tilted slightly towards Pat’s when the news emerged that Kehoe was rated doubtful with an ankle injury he sustained in the semi-final.
“As I hit the ball with my right foot, my left turned over in a divot or hole and though the physio is optimistic that I will be able to play with the proper strapping, I am feeling a bit depressed,” he told the Irish Independent on the eve of the title-decider. “It would be terrible to have to miss a game like this and I’m just praying that everything goes right in a fitness test a few hours before the start.”
As it transpired, Kehoe’s name was absent on the teamsheet with Mick Shelly drafted into the side in his absence.
Kerr responded to the semi-final defeat by reshuffling his pack, leaving out John McDonnell and Mark Ennis to accommodate Martin Morrison and Paul Byrne. Pat Fenlon was deployed as an out-and-out striker alongside Paddy Dillon and within seven minutes, the new signing from Chelsea had outdone Dundalk.
Fenlon skilfully evaded a tackle from Shelly and crossed the ball into the box. The ball appeared to bobble in front of Gino Lawless but referee Sean Purcell decided that the Dundalk player had handled the ball.
After the game, Gino said: “When the referee blew, I looked around to see who had committed the foul and I was absolutely astounded to see that the finger was pointing at me. I never touched the ball in that incident”. The penalty was strongly contested but Fenlon held his nerve to score from the spot.
Dundalk soon regained their composure. In the 22nd minute, Martin Lawlor crossed into the box and Dessie Gorman’s downward header skipped off the turf and bounced into the net from six yards. Advantage Dundalk…
Henderson then saved bravely at Terry Eviston’s feet before Paddy Dillon intercepted a poor back pass and shot goalwards. With O’Neill stranded, Joey Malone came to the rescue with a goal-line clearance.
As Martin Lawlor explained afterwards, Dundalk’s trademark was to allow the opposition to have the initiative as they knew that they could soak up the pressure that came their way. This may have been an excellent tactic – but it wasn’t good for the Oriel Park faithful who had to sit through a heart-stopping 45 minutes in the second half!
Pat’s held the initiative for the majority of the second period as they surged forward in search of a winning goal and Pat Kelch tested O’Neill with a free-kick after 48 minutes.
The pivotal moment came in the 77th minute. Pat’s won a free-kick on the left and Kelch delivered an inswinger towards the six-yard box. The Lilywhites’ backline was confident that O’Neill would claim comfortably but, to the shock of the Dundalk goalkeeper, and the 6,000 Dundalk fans present, Paddy Dillon appeared to glance the ball into the net.
There was little doubt that the linesman had raised his flag within a second of the incident to indicate that Dillon had punched the ball into the net – but for those in the ground, it felt like time stood still! When the crowd started to react to the flag – and any confusion or doubt was removed – when received a second yellow card for his actions and made the walk of shame down the tunnel!
From that point on, Dundalk defended superbly and there was no last-gasp chance for the visitors to snatch the title. The final whistle went and the pitch invasion began. Dundalk were the champions at the end of one of the most dramatic league campaigns in League of Ireland history.
”Tonight’s match was a nerve-wracking experience,” said O’Connor afterwards. “What made it so good was the fact that St Patrick’s came looking for a win and played accordingly
“I thought we were magnificent because that early penalty was a real sickener and it might have unnerved lesser teams. I’m thrilled for the players who showed terrific commitment and spirit right throughout the campaign, even when things weren’t going too well for us.”
Ten days later, O’Connor’s side went on to beat Derry City in the FAI Cup final at Dalymount Park to complete the league and cup double.
DUNDALK FC: Alan O’Neill, Gino Lawless, Harry McCue, Joey Malone, Martin Lawlor, Larry Wise, Martin Murray, Mick Shelly, John Cleary, Dessie Gorman (Michael O’Connor 74), Terry Eviston.