AFTER spending the last five months of the 2018 season trying to consolidate, Ronán Collins for the very first time has his feet firmly under the table as manager of Cork City WFC.
Twice the firefighter - first in 2012 when Dave Bell left and again last season after Frank Kelleher's departure - this season presents the former Academy manager a clean slate with the senior team for the very first time on which to put his stamp.
After the highs of winning the cup in 2017, the hope was that a taste of silverware would ignite this generation's taste for success, that the Rebel Army would finally string together more solid performances against the top teams and potentially mount a challenge at the upper end of the Women's National League.
What we saw instead was disarray in May, as cup winning manager Kelleher left in shock circumstances, and Aviva goalscorer Shine injured herself early on in the season, barely to feature again.
It was a rocky period but presented an opportunity for Collins to show he was capable of stepping up to the mark.
And apart from the occasional drubbing - beaten 5-0 by Peamount in Collins’ opening game and 9-1 by the same opposition at home in their final encounter of the season - reaching the final of the Development Shield was no mean feat given the circumstances.
And since then Nathalie O'Brien was named Player of the Tournament in helping take Doncaster to the final of the Deaf Futsal Champions League, with U17 player Rebekah Grant scoring a hatful of goals alongside her.
Another youngster, former Lakewood underage star Éabha O'Mahony proved why Collins was so keen to have her by taking a place in the 2018 WNL Team of the Year, before captaining and scoring for her country.
The current City boss u
understands the current underage setup better than anybody, and O'Mahony was one of several call-ups from last year's U17 crop.
Don't be surprised to see plenty more given a taste of senior football under a manager who constantly has his eye on the future.
Exemplified by City's pre-season, which has seen them take on a conquest of Munster, training sessions and games from Tralee to Tramore with several stops in between, spreading the club's reach further than ever before, and giving the boss an excellent opportunity to see for himself what's in the province outside the city.
A 1-1 draw against Kilkenny United in Cahir saw those youngsters feature heavily in the first half, before the regular starters got a much-deserved crack of the whip after pre-season training that began in earnest in blizzard conditions in Bishopstown.
That was followed up by 5-0 drubbing of Limerick in Tralee, largely handed to the Rebel Army, who saw themselves 3-0 to the good without having to do much as the Shannonsiders got all of their early-season mistakes out of the system within the first 45 minutes.
However, those two sides one would expect City to beat, having finished fourth last season ahead the aforementioned two and the UCD Waves, who have been re-taken over by the Dun Laoighre/Rathdown County Council having ended their partnership with the country's largest University at the end of 2018.
The real question, as often with this side, is whether City can maintain some consistency in their performances, and translate their cup form into the league campaign - that will depend on their senior players.
That both Clare Shine - returning to tie up with Glasgow City for a second time having barely featured for City last year - and Saoirse Noonan - who's hamstring injury suffered against Peamount in that final day drubbing will see her out indefinitely - are both gone will be a big blow for City's goal chances, at least until last year's club top scorer Noonan returns.
It's a big year, too, for Eve Badana; having shared the number one jersey with Budden for the last 18 months, it's now the Canadian native's opportunity to prove herself as the primary shot-stopper, not only in Collins’ books, but also potentially in Colin Bell's plans, with qualification for the European Championships ongoing.
Savannah McCarthy was City's Player of the Year in 2018, and will be needed to dictate play in the centre of the park for this young side alongside the returning Stacey Paul O'Regan, while Ciara McNamara's leadership abilities at centre-back need no questioning, her ability to navigate the dressing room through that difficult few weeks last year not drawing nearly enough praise from those at national level.
Her rock-solid stability is exactly what City need after a bumpy 2018, and something which Collins will try to deliver, having steadied the ship to the best of his ability.
The club, too, needs to recognise the manager's role and let the former Wexford Youths coach get on with his job, starting next week.
That game is rather fittingly at home to Peamount, and should give a good early indication as to where the Rebel Army are in 2019.
Though with the larger clubs again bolstering their ranks after the Waves’ change, City are still some way short of challenging for an inaugural Women's National League title.
With such a young squad don't expect Collins’ side to be lighting any fires themselves this season, but at least for the now-permanent manager, the fighting them is something he, and the players, can gladly leave in the past.