The demand that Cork qualify for Europe every year was costly. Its new, prudent approach has benefits, says Denis Hurley...
EVEN last year, after losing their Premier Division crown to Dundalk, there was hope that Cork City would still be pushing near the top of the table.
The Lilywhites were in transition, with their manager, Stephen Kenny, having been replaced by Vinny Perth and John Gill, and while City had lost 2018’s top scorer, Kieran Sadlier, there was a precedent at the club of unearthing rough diamonds under then manager, John Caulfield, most notably striker Seán Maguire.
Defeats to St Patrick’s Athletic and Waterford meant City were on the back foot, but away victories at Sligo Rovers and Finn Harps were followed by a 2-0 triumph over Bohemians, at Turner’s Cross, on March 15, and Cork City were up to fourth.
Unfortunately, it proved to be the high-point for the campaign and, by the time the team won again, away to Bohs’ on May 3, Caulfield was gone, to be replaced by John Cotter.
However, the former assistant manager didn’t last long, either, and when Fenn was appointed, in August, he was the fourth boss of the season, as Frank Kelleher had had the title of manager, for licensing reasons, when Cotter was in charge.
Coupled with the downturn in fortunes on the field were financial difficulties, with big losses and a settlement with Revenue.
As a result, Fenn is having to deal with a reduction in budgets for 2020, but City chairman, Declan Carey, feels that the prudent fiscal approach will prove to be positive in the long run.
“The club would have hedged its bets on performance in previous seasons,” he said.
“The way the club had been set up the past couple of years, we absolutely had to have success on the pitch; otherwise, the following years were going to be a catastrophe, from a cash-flow perspective.
“The club was built on having to be in the top three; having to qualify for Europe was built into our budgets and plans.
“When that didn’t happen, we got into a situation where we are now: no doubt about it, we had to make cutbacks and reduce our playing budget,” Carey says.
“As a result, we may have lost one or two players that the manager would liked to have kept, but wasn’t able to hold on to.
“This year, by all means, if we’re not in the top two by June, we’re not as heavily reliant on attendances as we would have been.
“It’s much more prudent, and safer, from a cash-flow perspective. There won’t be a situation where — plucking a random example — if we have a poor attendance on a Friday, we wouldn’t be able to get in scarves for the club shop two weeks later, which could have been the case in the past.
“Europe is kind of a poisoned chalice in that regard, as well. If your budget is over €2m and Europe brings in anywhere upwards of €400k, in terms of attendances and prize money, you’re getting that in November, 20% of your revenue in one month, which doesn’t help from a cash-flow perspective,” Carey says.
“Promising creditors you’d pay them when the European money came in, it was an easy fall-back.”
There will be no European money this season and to expect some in 2021 would be optimistic. But Fenn is keen to impress on everybody that it is a case of resetting and forgetting 2019.
“I had bad seasons and you just try to brush it off,” he told The Echo back in December.
“You need to mentally strong and have self-belief, but I’m sure that, come the start of pre-season, they’ll have forgotten about it. They’ll come in fresh and be excited about a new year,” Fenn says.
“I keep telling everyone to forget about 2019. It’s the same as if you won the double: it means nothing when pre-season starts.”
With a much-changed squad, it can take time for a team to gel, but Fenn does make the case, elsewhere in this supplement, that his management team is familiar with more than a few of the new men, so there is an appreciation of what is wanted.
Good football is one of Fenn’s core principles and there were signs of that change in the latter half of 2019, though compromised by City’s involvement in what was a relegation battle, no matter how remote the prospect seemed.
Without such fears — for now, anyway — the hope must be that City can take the game to opponents and reap rewards.
Ultimately, the bottom line is that supporters have to be level-headed, as boring as that may sound.
“We have to start somewhere, really,” Carey says.
“If we ploughed the same resources into the first team as the last two years and it did go wrong, the club would probably be no more, such would be the losses that we would have.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure that there’s a viable club there and have a brand that we want to create, which is young, hungry Cork players coming through, give them a scholarship in UCC, develop them; if they go across the water, great, or if they get into our first team, better again.
“Conor McCarthy and Ronan Hurley are probably two prime examples, where Ronan will be a first-teamer next year and Conor has moved to St Mirren, after blossoming here,” Carey says.
“He had five years at the club; you wouldn’t think it for a guy 21 years of age. If we can have a few more like him, then all well and good and we can eventually get back up to the top.”
These things take time, though.
“We just have to be patient,” Carey says.
“We’ve rebuilt the whole squad and management team; a lot of hard work behind the scenes from everyone at the club to get us to where we are now.
“We’re confident of having a very good season, overall, for the club and can’t wait to get going.
“Hopefully, a huge crowd comes out to see what we’re about and drive the team on,” Carey says.