Linfield 3 Dundalk 5: West Belfast kid Daniel Kearns subjected Linfield to a St Valentine’s Night massacre at Windsor Park last night.
The teenager grabbed a sensational hat-trick as the Lilywhites roared to victory in this Setanta Cup first leg game.
Mark Quigley also bagged a brace as the visitors ran riot.
Even though Peter Thompson, Robert Garrett and Curtis Allen retaliated for David Jeffrey’s ailing side, they now face an almost impossible task in the second leg at Oriel Park on Monday.
Kearns joined Dundalk from West Ham United — released at the start of the season under the management of Gianfranco Zola.
And, he punished Linfield with a wonderfully crafted goal on 31 minutes.
Quigley found new boy Jason Byrne on the left and his superb cross-field pass picked out the live-wire Kearns, who rammed a low drive past Alan Blayney.
It was almost two five minutes later when Quigley once more cleverly linked with Byrne and the former Republic of Ireland international sent in a looping drive that Blayney superbly clawed out of the top corner.
Linfield, still shaken from their scoreless draw against Dunmurry Rec in the JJB Sports Irish Cup on Saturday, had a penalty claim turned down on 39 minutes when Thompson buckled under a challenge from Dean Bennett.
Referee Stephen Weatherall was not impressed and waved play on. However, the Belfast official did point to the spot two minutes before the interval following Nathan Murphy’s challenge on Billy Joe Burns.
Northern Ireland international Thompson stepped up to blast the penalty past Cherrie.
Quigley restored Dundalk's lead with a wonderful finish in the 54th minute.
Ross Gaynor's low cross found its way to the striker at the back post and the former Bohs player created a yard of space before placing the ball into the corner of the net.
The Blues, however, retaliated on 62 minutes.
Again the referee took centre stage — awarding a penalty when Thompson went down following a tackle from Colin Hawkins.
Cherrie superbly beat away Thompson’s spot-kick only for Garrett to follow up and roll the ball home off the base of a post.
But Dundalk were far from finished. Byrne broke down the left and his clever cut back was expertly finished by Kearns.
Quigley then added his second of the night with a cool finish on 75 minutes.
Linfield hit back by grabbing what could have been a priceless lifeline on 81 minutes when substitute Curtis Allen converted an Aaron Burns cross with the Dundalk defence looking vulnerable for the first time. With the Blues on the hunt for an equaliser they were caught hopelessly on the break in injury time when Garrett failed to connect with a header in the centre of the Dundalk half and Kearns ran 60 yards unchallenged before poking the ball past Blayney.
It was an unforgettable night for the Louth club — and for Kearns — but Blues boss will be shaking his head in disbelief after watching his side concede five goals at Windsor Park — a rare occurence. It was a pulsating game but Dundalk’s lethal counter-attacks settled the contest.
Linfield refused to lie down and fought back but their Setanta Cup hopes must now hang by a thread.
Kearns left the pitch with the match ball though Mark Quigley could also have celebrated a hat-trick.
After the second half goal blitz, Jeffrey will be looking again at his defence ahead of the Carling Premiership clash at home to Newry City on Saturday.
Linfield: Blayney, Gault, Murphy (Armstrong 71), Thompson, BJ Burns, Hanley (Allen 74), Garrett, Mulgrew, McAllister, Casement. Subs: O’Kane, Addis, Ervin, Munster, McCaul. Bookings: BJ Burns 20, Hanley 57, Garrett 63
Dundalk: Cherrie, Madden, Bennett, Hawkins, Kearns, Quigley, Byrne, Gaynor, N Murphy, Bolger, Ward (McDonnell 83). Subs: Maher, P Murphy, Griffin, Breen. Bookings: Gaynor 12, Madden 25, Bolger 63
Referee: S Weatherall (Belfast).