IF IT feels like a long while ago now it’s still quite easy to locate the signature performance of Cork City’s season, that night where the project took the leap from a team that could be champions to a team that absolutely would be champions.
I don’t think anybody who watched the trip to Dundalk in early June could have been left in any kind of doubt and a look back at the opening two goals from that night only confirms that all the qualities associated with this Cork City side were very much present.
The build-up to the first goal was bursting with the brightness and purpose of City during that opening half of the season and stamped with the clever movement and finishing of a striker in the most purple of patches.
The second goal had Jimmy Keohane chasing down a clearance, John Dunleavy thinking quickly with a cute throw-in and cross and again Maguire’s movement across the defender and nodded finish only doable by a forward at the top of his game.
It was a team playing at the highest level of belief and complete conviction in what they were doing and if the quality of the football went through an inevitable sticky patch later on, it’s still been almost impossible to watch City this year, or the last three to four years basically, and not immediately recognise a group shaped by their manager John Caulfield.
The whole argument on Sean Maguire’s influence and City’s fall off post-Maguire tends to forget a few factors.
One, the spotting of Maguire as the man to take City to the next level was one of those sparks of genius that doesn’t really happen very often, taking a player from the subs bench at your biggest rivals and basically making him into an international striker over the course of 18 months is Brian Clough kind of territory for talent scouting and player development.
Two, it’s actually almost impossible to overstate the sort of effect losing your most influential striker midway through a season can have — think how Leicester might have coped if they’d lost Jamie Vardy in say January of their amazing season a few years back.
Three, Maguire was exactly the type of player City needed at the time, the sharpness and energy and pace to give them a different ball to hit when attacking and the finishing touch to tuck away chances and win games regularly (even if nobody could really have expected quite that impact).
Four, that’s all basically on Caulfield, who’s cajoled improvements and career-best seasons out of more or less everyone in the squad this past couple of years. Karl Sheppard has become a goals and assist machine — his opener against Dundalk in March and his cross for Maguire’s first goal up in Dundalk were game-changing. Greg Bolger looked like the upgrade City had needed in midfield, all go and willingness to take the ball from his teammates anywhere on the field.
Until Conor McCormack came along to influence games in the middle third even more through his ability to cover ground and pick up second balls and provide a real safety in front of his defence. Ryan Delaney came in and improved the centre of defence.
The evolution has been remarkable mainly for its ticking of boxes and sheer clear targeting of each problem area to be solved and then for its really astonishing success rate in doing just that. It’s just been a really methodical system of taking one step at a time. Caulfield knew that making Turner’s Cross a place for the opposition to hate had to happen early on; from the first season City have had a standout home record and again this season they won 12 from 16, only conceding nine goals.
The 10 draws in 2015 and seven last year were turned into just four draws in 2017 by more creativity, more pace in their game and of course by Sean Maguire’s extra game-changing goals. Goals scored have jumped from 51 in year one to 67 in year four. The losing of the big games to Dundalk was a killer and had to be halted.
The importance of that FAI Cup final win last year in shifting momentum can’t be overvalued and three of City’s most dominant impressive performances in the league this year have been against Dundalk – the conviction of the win back in March made a real statement of intent, the Maguire hat-trick show up in Dundalk was defining, the desire and application to do the basics with a real tempo probably deserved a win in the recent draw at home.
The team has improved and been improved year on year and that’s not necessarily as straight-forward or obvious a thing as you’d imagine. The manager has improved too. Again, not always a given at any level.
He altered his way of playing a little as needs have changed while still maintaining the focus that underpins everything — City may have come up short at various times in the last few seasons but there’s never been a game where they’ve looked badly coached or lacking basic organisation or application or spirit.
If anything has defined this era it’s most likely been this sense of a journey, of a group taking a leap and slowly coming around to the idea that they can achieve something.
The winning of the league may have begun that June night in Dundalk where they really announced themselves, or even last November when they banked the confidence from that big cup final win, or when Sean Maguire was persuaded to come on board, or even way back when a group of fans decided they’d had enough of their club being abused and took matters into their own hands.
It certainly got that spark it needed when Caulfield became the leader of the vision to make Cork City a consistent force again. The next step will be fascinating as the project shifts to maybe bringing in more quality in attack, shuffling in some of the real potential from underage, perhaps slightly changing the style of football again, targeting European nights.
City have always failed for various reasons to properly build on success so the challenge starts Sunday in making this long-term rather than fleeting. It’ll need another leap but Cork City have gotten used to making those.