Keith Ward’s headed goal – the first of his career – secured Dundalk a well-deserved three points against Sligo Rovers at The Showgrounds on Saturday night.
The 32-year-old, who came off the bench in the 76th minute, met Darragh Leahy’s pinpoint cross to guide a brilliant header past Luke McNicholas with just six minutes to play.
The victory, Dundalk’s third on the spin, extends the Lilywhites’ unbeaten run to five games and moves them into fourth place in the SSE Airtricity Men’s Premier Division table, just six points behind leaders Bohemians.
Stephen O’Donnell made one change to the side that beat UCD on Monday with Patrick Hoban coming in for John Martin and there was a welcome return for Daniel Kelly and Cameron Elliott, who were both named on the bench.
The opening 20 minutes proved to be very cagey but it was the hosts who almost pulled in front with their first attack of real note when Max Mata’s downward header looked like it was going to beat Nathan Shepperd but he managed to get down and make a brilliant save to his left.
Things opened up after that and Rayhaan Tulloch cut back onto his right foot and curled one at goal but McNicholas turned it around the post. Hoban then stung the palms of the Bit o’Red ‘keeper with a shot that took a slight deflection off John Mahon.
Mata should probably have done better when he got on the end of a good William Fitzgerald centre but the league’s top scorer planted his header into the turf and the ball looped harmlessly over Shepperd’s crossbar.
The Welsh goalkeeper then made a couple of further stops before the break, holding on to efforts from Fabrice Hartmann and Nando Pijnaker.
HT: Sligo Rovers 0-0 Dundalk FC
Sligo boss John Russell made a double change at the break and the Bit o’Red started the second half on the front foot with Hayden Muller needing to make a smart intervention to stop Johan Brannefalk’s dangerous ball being gobbled up by Mata at the near post.
Shepperd made another excellent stop to deny Mata after the Sligo hitman broke clear and Wasiri Williams threw himself in the way of Stefan Radosavljevic’s follow-up as Dundalk showed great determination to keep their goal intact.
At the other end, Connor Malley saw one fly just wide of the upright after creating a yard to get his shot away and when O’Donnell turned to his bench with 19 minutes to play, introducing John Martin, it was a signal of intent from the Dundalk head coach.
Martin scored in his two previous outings and he almost made it three in three just seconds after coming on, meeting Malley’s free only to see McNicholas keep his header out with a stunning save.
Ward was also sent into battle with 76 minutes on the clock and he punished his old club when he put the finishing touch on Leahy’s superb delivery. It was his 10th goal for the club, coming 11 years after his first!
Rovers had no answer to the goal and Hoban was denied a killer second by a brilliant McNicholas save in stoppage time as Dundalk closed it out to extend their fine run of form.
FT: Sligo Rovers 0-1 Dundalk FC
SLIGO ROVERS: Luke McNicholas, Johan Brannefalk, John Mahon (Eanna Clancy HT), Nando Pijnaker, Reece Hutchinson, Lukas Browning, Niall Morahan (David Cawley 76), Fabrice Hartmann (Frank Livak HT), Stefan Radosavljevic, Will Fitzgerald, Max Mata (Bogdan Vastsuk 76). Subs not used: Richard Brush (GK), Daniel Lafferty, Greg Bolger, Eli Rooney, Owen Elding.
DUNDALK FC: Nathan Shepperd, Archie Davies, Wasiri Williams, Hayden Muller, Darragh Leahy, Connor Malley, Alfie Lewis, Ryan O’Kane (John Martin 70), Rayhaan Tulloch (Paul Doyle 88), Johannes Yli-Kokko (Keith Ward 76), Patrick Hoban. Subs not used: Daniel Kelly, Cameron Elliott, Robbie McCourt, Eoin Kenny, Peter Cherrie (GK), Mark Byrne (GK)
REFEREE: Paul McLaughlin.