IT was your typical League of Ireland opening week, that messy mix of hope and fear of heartbreak.
Worries about finances, last-minute cash deals to head off licensing problems, loan signings, hopeful first viewings of new players, conversations about how the development of young players can help the league/how the league can help young players, and the sense that nobody was quite sure how good or how bad things were about to get.
And that was all just Cork City, before their first game of the season, a 1-0 defeat to Shelbourne. On the walk down to Turner’s Cross, conversations drifted to Man City’s Champions League ban and the constant shadow of English football.
During the Sean Maguire era, a few years ago (even then Cork City manager, John Caulfield, referenced it), every Maguire goal was greeted with part joy, part realisation that it brought his exit closer.
This kind of inconsistency has always been part of a league that still hasn’t found its place.
The Shelbourne game itself offered little that ought to have been any sort of surprise. The crowd were as up for it as ever.
The team were game and energetic, as you’d expect on day one, but didn’t have either the cohesion of having played with each other for more than a game or two or the ability to create a moment of quality, a pass or run that might open up the game.
Most of the noises from the stand came for a tackle or collision rather than a skill or pass. City had six shots, none of which were on target, and expected goals of 0.7, to Shel’s 1.5, which seems about right.
In another kind of contradiction, the league has a progressive agreement on the sharing and release of statistical details from games, metrics like expected goals or passes allowed per defensive action, yet facilities are such that the storm last weekend made TV coverage impossible from Dalymount Park, one of the big traditional stadia in the country.
City had a lot of possession without a great deal of purpose, sideways passing without penetrating, and a lack of combinations between the front five or six players. City did a little warm-up drill beforehand: two forwards made runs to the near and back post and a cross was whipped into one of these areas. When this situation came up in the game, once or twice, you could see that lack of interaction or knowledge of runs between players, the pass not matching the run.
The creative responsibility fell to Daire O’Connor and Dylan McGlade. Both had little touches or runs that suggested potential, but they never found a position or final ball to hurt Shels.
City looked a team that hadn’t played with each other often, and even by the league’s standards of frequent turnover of players, this has been a remarkably fast transition.
Only Gearoid Morrissey is left from the league-winning team of 2017 and only two starters remained from the opening day of last season.
This kind of complete reboot is both hopeful and a genuine worry. City have no choice but to build a new team, maybe with a focus on development of young players from the academy.
City had a great run with an U19 team in Europe a few years ago and from the team that played Roma in that UEFA series, Cian Coleman started in midfield here and Alex Byrne came on as sub. Denzil Fernandes travelled with Shels. Chiedozie Ogbene is tearing it up with Rotherham, at the top of England’s League 1, and Conor McCarthy is with Scotland’s St Mirren.
Another player with a Cork connection, Jaze Kabia, came on for Shels and influenced the game with a lovely turn and run that led to the corner and the goal.
Going with youth might be a necessity, rather than a desire, but there are no guarantees. Only last weekend, we read about Conor Ellis, a sub on that league-winning squad of a few years back. He went to Limerick, but club licensing circumstances make it unlikely he’ll play in the league at all this season.
City’s best player last Friday night was Joseph Olowu, on loan from Arsenal, who looked a commanding, aggressive presence at centre-back. Their second-best was Ronan Hurley, a left-back from Schull who has come right through the age groups with City and who was also on the squad for that Roma U19 game. It’s always been about getting right this mix of homegrown players and imports from the UK.
City being a stepping stone can be a selling point (most every club is now; just ask Ajax). Only this week, Kieran Sadlier mentioned how City was a platform for his move to Doncaster. There’s a certain freedom here for manager, Neale Fenn, to go in whatever direction he wants: he has a group of players who have no shared history or star power and who can be moulded into any style or mentality, and there is little pressure to challenge this season.
The trickier side of this type of restructure is a fanbase that needs a buzz of momentum and expectation to fully engage. Turner’s Cross has always been a massive part of any drive from City. In much the same way that Anfield has been mobilised by Jurgen Klopp for Liverpool’s unbeaten run, City lost twice at home in the title-winning seasons of 2005 and 2017, and seven times at home last season.
Turner’s Cross has that twin effect of being unpleasant for opposition and inspiring for home players. There needs to be something obviously City about the team: think of the swagger and invention of the 2005 team or the aggression and conviction of the 2017 version.
City fans will have to be gotten onside by some sense of a project, of an overriding purpose. There will likely be pain on the way: this weekend could be desperately difficult on the pitch and there are rocky times ahead off it.
Yet the real task is building a team and a club that can inspire and make players/fans want to be part of the journey.