Ahead of this evening’s SSE Airtricity League Premier Division encounter between Dundalk FC and Sligo Rovers, we take a look back at the meeting between the sides at Oriel Park in October 2009 when the Lilywhites held on for a famous draw – despite playing the final 23 minutes with just eight men!
After seven years in the wilderness of the first division, Dundalk’s return to the top-flight in 2009 proved to be a rollercoaster ride that will live long in the memory.
With Sean Connor at the helm, the Lilywhites finished the season in a very respectable sixth position – and qualified for Europe – but most of the headlines centred on the team’s disciplinary record.
The night that probably sums up the campaign came on October 15th, 2009 when Dundalk held on for a famous, or should that be infamous, draw against Sligo Rovers at Oriel Park despite playing the final 23 minutes with just eight men after Kevin McKinlay, Chris Turner and Thomas Heary were all sent off.
The three dismissals brought Dundalk’s tally to 16 for the season, an average of one every two games. By the time the season had ended, a further five red cards had been added to the charge sheet!
Writing in The Guardian in 2014, Lilywhites supporter Sean De Loughry laid out the grim statistics. “In 2009, Dundalk set a new European record with 20 red cards in the League of Ireland Premier Division, in just 33 games.
“It’s often reported that it was 19 as one of Simon Kelly’s three red cards that season came after the full-time whistle. We played 25 minutes against Sligo with just eight men and had two players sent off in another three games, but we did sneak into Europe.
“Dundalk also picked up one more red card in an ill-tempered FAI Cup replay against Bohemians which saw nine Dundalk players carded in a game that could easily have ended seven-a-side.”
Sean Connor had his own view, saying: “The national press have their own agenda. I can’t control that. Perception is reality, unfortunately. They’ve got me and this team in a box and they want to keep us there. We’re not a dirty team and we’re not ill-disciplined.”
The Sligo game did little to help the Belfast man, or his team’s, reputation but, for any neutrals who may have been in attendance, the red cards only added to an action-packed encounter.
With current Ipswich Town manager Paul Cook at the helm, Sligo Rovers made the trip to Oriel on the back of a fine run of form and they started the game well.
Dangerman Rafael Cretaro found himself with a glimpse of Peter Cherrie’s posts with just six minutes played but Thomas Heary did well to nick the ball away at the last minute. Cretaro then turned provider for strike partner Matthew Blinkhorn but the English striker’s volley was well saved by Cherrie.
The visitors continued to make the early running and they took a deserved lead in the 28th minute. Romauld Boco’s cross skimmed off Heary’s head and Cretaro made no mistake at the back post to take his goal haul for the campaign to 20.
Dundalk hit back just five minutes later when Michael McGowan took full advantage of a slip by Danny Ventre to run on to Nathan Murphy’s pass and the Scottish winger cut in from the left to guide the ball past Ciaran Kelly to make it 1-1.
Connolly gave a slight indication of what was to come when he booked McGowan for covering his header with his shirt during the goal celebration, much to the bemusement of everyone in the ground!
Lifted by the goal, Dundalk side upped the tempo and Turner went close with a long-range effort while Alex Williams was unlucky not to set Ger Rowe up for a simple finish. The half-time whistle blew shortly after with nobody aware of what was to come!
Dundalk pulled ahead just three minutes after the restart when Turner fired home from the penalty spot after Ventre was adjudged to have handled McGowan’s cross but things started to heat up in the 50th minute when Scottish full-back Kevin McKinley was sent off for lashing out at Cretaro with his arm.
Contact appeared minimal but McKinley did himself no favours by throwing the ball at Cretaro as the Sligo player lay on the ground and Connolly was left with no other option than to produce red.
Dismissal number two came nine minutes later when Turner was harshly adjudged to have handled a ferocious goal-bound effort from Gavin Peers. Even with the benefit of TV replays, the decision looked questionable. Alan Keane stepped up to draw Sligo level from the spot.
“The Sligo player is maybe only eight or nine yards away from me,” sighed a frustrated Turner afterwards. “He’s hit it on the half volley and it’s come through a ruck of players. I’ve moved out to block it and it’s hit me on the top half of my chest and he’s given me a straight red. I think he was maybe trying to make up for giving us a penalty at the other end.
“There wasn’t a dirty tackle in the whole game yet we’ve ended up getting three men sent off. I don’t know what to say. It’s been the story of the year with referees. We haven’t had a dirty tackle all year yet we keep getting men sent off. I can’t explain it.
“The League of Ireland is a good league. The only thing holding it back is the standard of refereeing. If we got that nailed on the head we would have a great league here. There is bad refereeing in every league but here they are too card happy here, they can’t wait to get a red or yellow card out and it’s holding the League of Ireland back.”
Pandemonium threatened to break loose eight minutes later. Heary clearly obstructed Blinkhorn from having a clear run on goal and the defender, who was initially booked for dissent following the McKinley dismissal, found himself heading for a crowded early shower.
It prompted Connor to instruct his players off the pitch but, thanks in so small part to the actions of Cook, the game continued.
“I was very, very close to taking my team off the park because I couldn’t see anything rational about what was going on,” said Connor afterwards. “For a split second, I thought about it. I didn’t do it. I left the eight on and they were admirable.”
With a big numerical advantage, Sligo threw everything at Dundalk and Boco was denied by a wonderful Liam Burns tackle with 16 minutes to go before Cherrie earned himself hero status with two brilliant saves late on from Blinkhorn.
With the atmosphere in Oriel Park reaching fever pitch, Dundalk held firm in stoppage time and Connolly’s whistle was – for once – greeted with cheers as he brought the curtain down on an epic encounter.
Speaking to the media afterwards, Connor was in defiant form. “I really don’t know what to think about the situation,” he said. “Is there something against me, or against the football club? Do referees come here with a perception about this team? There are so many things that you could think about.
“Referees come in, make decisions and go away. Managers and players are left to pick up the pieces,” he continued. “I’m judged every week by results and performances, the same with my players. Referees in recent weeks have cost this club an opportunity of European football. That’s €100k plus and in this day and age that is a lifeline for a football club.
“They talk about trying to make this league more appealing and a positive league. I want to promote this league. I encourage my team to play football. I think we are good for this league. The reputation we have as a dirty team is crazy. The sad thing is that a number of people in this town are starting to believe we are a dirty team. Maybe tonight will shut those people up.
“I’m not going to let a referee destroy my morale. I’m going away tonight in a positive frame of mind because the players left on the park could not have given any more for the club or each other.”
Turner also praised the spirit shown by his teammates, who refused to buckle as Sligo laid siege to the Dundalk goal for the final 23 minutes.
“I’ve never played in a game where a team has had three players sent-off,” said the midfielder. “I thought the boys did magnificently to hold on.
“Our backs were against the wall for those 23 minutes and stoppage time and it just shows the character of the team. The manager has put a great bunch of lads together and we will have a very strong chance of competing at the top if we can keep them together.”
DUNDALK FC: Peter Cherrie; Shaun Kelly, Liam Burns, Thomas Heary, Nathan Murphy (Darren Mansaram 71); Michael McGowan, Michael Daly, Chris Turner, Kevin McKinley; Ger Rowe, Alex Williams (Michael Coburn 84). Subs not used: Tiarnan Mulvenna, Michael McGinlay, Martin McGowan.
SLIGO ROVERS: Ciaran Kelly; Danny Ventre (Dean Marshall 69), Gavin Peers (Darren Meenan 77), Alan Keane, Joe Kendrick; Romauld Boco, Richie Ryan, Conor O’Grady (Rob Turner 86), Eoin Doyle; Matthew Blinkhorn, Rafael Cretaro. Subs not used: Martin Camano, Michael Schlingermann.
REFEREE: Tom Connolly (Dublin).