UNSEASY lies the head that wears the crown?
Perhaps, but there are 19 other League of Ireland clubs who would be willing swap places with Cork City.
Going into a new season as defending champions isn’t a common feeling for the club, but, compared to the other two occasions, it could be argued there is far more stability, coupled with an off-season of strong transfer dealings.
After 2005, the club lost Liam Kearney and Greg O’Halloran and failed to adequately strengthen; while they were in the title race for a time, a falling-out between manager Damien Richardson and star player George O’Callaghan cast a shadow and they wound up finishing fourth.
Twenty-five years ago, City followed their maiden title with a second-placed finish to Shamrock Rovers, a creditable performance given that Richardson had come in for his first spell as manager to replace Noel O’Mahony. Off the field, the club moved into the then-new Bishopstown stadium, but Richardson was gone by the middle of 1994-95 after a falling-out with chairman Pat O’Donovan and the following season saw the club teeter on the brink of extinction due to financial problems associated with the cost of the stadium.
Forming one half of a deadly strikeforce back then was John Caulfield, the only man to play in and then manage a City title-winning side. Looking back to 1993, he acknowledges the differences, but know that while last year is a boon to the City players in terms of belief, no game is going to win itself.
“It was similar, but there was big difference in that there was a new manager in place,” he says.
“If you look at it overall, I think we did very well, we came to second to Rovers and we were in control for a good spell but we lost it in the run-in.
“Winning breeds confidence in all sports, the trick is to make sure that it doesn’t breed over-confidence.
“I’m hoping that the team will be stronger after winning last year, in terms of their mentality. The mental toughness is there, the fact that they won in the manner they did. They know what they have to do, having won it, and you’d be hopeful that winning the league will drive them on in the same way that the cup win in 2016 drove them on.”
Going into the 2015, 2016 and 2017 league seasons, City were leading the chasing pack, eager to catch Dundalk. The tables are turned now, but that’s not something to be feared, in Caulfield’s view.
“Does it feel different? I suppose I still have the same buzz and was looking forward to the team coming back, after winning and obviously with the new players and integrating them,” he says.
“Of course, there’s a change there after winning, because you’re there to be knocked down, as opposed to when you’re chasing.
“It’s not a negative mindset, it’s a positive because you’re up there and teams want to knock you.”
In the wake of the departures of Seán Maguire and Kevin O’Connor last autumn, City’s form failed to stay at the levels it had been in the first half of the season. As Dundalk closed the gap – so much so that they went in to the FAI Cup final as favourites – there was a growing sense that the heart of City’s side was being ripped out before the title win could even be enjoyed.
Instead, most of the stars of last season were tied to new contracts, with Ryan Delaney – whose loan spell ended – and Stephen Dooley the only notable exits. Having such a strong core to build on means that Caulfield avoided the stress of radical surgery to the team.
“I think that’s the key to it,” he says.
“If you look at the team and the squad, from the cup final Delaney and Dooley are the only two of the starting 11 who aren’t there.
“You’re saying to yourself that the nucleus of the team that won the double are still here, obviously we had a few positions to fill in, O’Hanlon and Cummins have come in to challenge for the centre-forward position, which was a problem.
“The core of the team is still there though, so you’re hopeful that they still have the hunger and the appetite from winning, that it gives them that belief to drive on and continue to win.
“As a management, we’re trying to make sure that the guys are not complacent and that they’re ready to go again.”
Added to the existing squad are a number of shrewd additions – goalkeeper Peter Cherrie, defenders Colm Horgan, Tobi Adebayo-Rowling, Aaron Barry and Danny Kane, midfielder Barry McNamee and strikers Graham Cummins and Josh O’Hanlon.
“The ideal scenario is that every year you get better and better and build a stronger squad, that’s what we’re hoping to do,” Caulfield says.
“I suppose a bigger thing is that the elephant in the room was that Maguire was gone and hadn’t been replaced. Now, you’re looking at Cummins, a very experienced guy, and O’Hanlon has come in too, he’s a younger guy.
“Cummins has shown before that he has the pedigree and can score goals. There’s a massive challenge ahead for him but he’s a confident type of guy. Then you’re looking at the rest of your squad and it looks like in other positions that you’re stronger than you were.
“From that point of view, it’s very encouraging.” As things stand, the bookmakers have City and Dundalk as 6/4 favourites for the title. Who else does Caulfield see as being in the mix?
“Rovers,” he says, “I think Derry will have a say as well.
“The way we feel about it, we go out to win every game. Obviously our home form last year was very good, our form in general was good everywhere.
“You’re hoping that you get the big crowds at home and take it from there.”
A far cry from when he came in as manager in the winter of December 2013, with City having recorded two sixth-placed finishes on their return to the top flight.
“Absolutely,” he says, “we’re in a totally different position.
“We came in at a time where the club had six players, we inherited a team that was in mid-table and we had no real budget.
“We worked really hard, a fantastic effort by John Cotter and all of the management team, to put systems in place and build on that.
“All of the hard work has led to a better system and getting in a better quality of players, so from that point of view we’re looking at a situation where as a management team we have improved, of course we have.
“You get more experienced, you get wiser, but ultimately as a team we’ve got much better and that has been shown on the pitch.
“Even though we came second in 2014, there’s no comparison between the team we have now and the team we had then.”
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