RELEGATION doesn’t just happen.
Well, it does in that one second you aren’t relegated and then you are, as when referee Neil Doyle blew the final whistle at Dalymount Park on Saturday night to signal Finn Harps’ victory over Bohemians.
That was the final act but it wasn’t the main cause, in the same way that Cork City’s 2-1 loss at Sligo Rovers earlier in the evening was merely another part of a chain-reaction, as interim manager Colin Healy outlined.
“We’re down the bottom of the table for a reason,” he said.“We haven’t been good enough and it showed there today. We gave away silly goals and it’s not good enough.”
City’s drop to the first division was merely the culmination of a series of bad decisions, on and off the field, over a two-and-a-half-year period. One could say it stretches longer, traced back to the departure of Seán Maguire to Preston North End in August of 2017 but, even without the star striker, City did manage to do enough to claim the league title and then saw off Dundalk on penalties in the FAI Cup final to complete the double.
During that off-season, City made a raft of signings and, to be fair to manager John Caulfield, most of them looked shrewd. Added to the squad were Danny Kane, Aaron Barry, the returning Graham Cummins, Peter Cherrie, Tobi Adebayo-Rowling, Josh O’Hanlon, Colm Horgan and Barry McNamee, while Kieran Sadlier had signed during the 2017 season, intended to partly offset the loss that Maguire represented.
Damien Delaney and Ronan Coughlan – who scored the winning goal for Sligo at the Showgrounds on Saturday – were mid-season additions but, of those 11, only Cummins and Horgan were part of the City squad that began the 2019 campaign.
It’s important to remember that 2018 was far from a disaster – City still finished second to Dundalk and reached a fourth straight cup final, and when they went to Oriel Park in June, they looked like securing a draw that would have kept them top of the table only for a late Seán McLoughlin own goal to give the Lilywhites an advantage they wouldn’t relinquish.
McLoughlin and Conor McCarthy were two big finds during 2018 and were part of the reason why Kane, Barry or Delaney didn’t have a lasting impact but the failure to integrate players of such quality meant that City went into 2019 with a poorer squad and the departure of Sadlier meant a shortfall of 25 goals to make up.
Cummins had had a good, but not great, season in 2018 but fell out of favour while McNamee moving back to Derry denied City another creative outlet and Jimmy Keohane – whose versatility was perhaps taken for granted while he was in the club – was another huge loss.
Put simply, the players recruited weren’t of sufficient quality to keep City at the upper end of the table. Liam Nash, Dan Smith, James Tilley and Matthew Gillam were four attacking players from England who failed to give City an extra dimension going forward and City had won just three of 14 league games when the club parted company with Caulfield on May 1.
Coupled with the drop in attacking output was a far leakier defence and, though there was a brief bounce when Caulfield’s former assistant John Cotter was given the job on an interim basis, the overall trend couldn’t be bucked.
The appointment of Neale Fenn was intended to provide greater stability for the long term but victory eluded City in his first six games and it wasn’t until the third-last game of the season and a victory over bottom side UCD that Premier Division safety was assured.
The close season was a chance for Fenn to build the squad in his own image but, while he was unlucky in the fact that the club’s perilous financial situation prevented any marquee signings, once again it couldn’t be argued that the incoming players were as good as or better than those leaving, such as the experienced Conor McCormack or Karl Sheppard, even if neither had been at their best in 2019.
In the opening game of the season, at home to Shelbourne, defender Joseph Olowu – on loan from Arsenal – had a free header at 0-0, late in the game, but failed to find the target and former City man Ciarán Kilduff netted a winner at the other end.
Had things gone differently, then there may have been a bounce but City had to deal with a fixture list that had them away to Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk in their second and third games, within four nights of each other. Defeats of 6-0 and 3-0 respectively were tough to take but there was some respite as Alec Byrne scored a late winner to beat Finn Harps in the fourth outing.
The fifth, away to St Patrick’s Athletic, was like Shels in that it came down to small margins but once again they went against City. It left City in the nether reaches as football was suspended for four months.
Again, finding goalscorers was a tough task. Conor Davis had been signed from Derry City but a groin injury meant the only time he was seen in a City shirt was for the league photoshoot, while Scott Fenwick and Connor Simpson, signed as the league restarted, didn’t even make it to the end of the campaign, neither finding the net for the club.
Kit Elliott, signed at the same time, did at least register one goal – a penalty in the best performance of the season, a 3-0 win at home to Sligo in August – but he missed from the spot on Saturday.
Had that gone in, City might well have won and there would have been a stay of execution. Unfortunately, it’s likely that that’s all it would have been, as the train was on an irreversible path.