How Cork City FC came back from the brink after relegation

Dylan O'Connell looks at how the Rebel Army coped with the drop to the First Division and how the vibes are positive ahead of the new season
How Cork City FC came back from the brink after relegation

Barry Coffey of Cork City celebrates after scoring in the SSE Airtricity League First Division match against Wexford at Turner's Cross. Picture: Michael P Ryan/Sportsfile

ON December 17, 2020 a statement from Foras sounded like a death knell.

The proposed takeover of the club by Groovemoor Limited — which had been voted for by the supporters group that October — was off. This followed a traumatic year for the Rebel Army, which began with the club nearly missing out on a Premier Division licence and ended with them getting relegated to the First Division.

Fans were worried and to make matters worse, games were being played behind closed doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only was the club in a whirlwind of crises, but the fans were locked outside.

A little over a year later, the situation in Cork has been totally transformed. City have a regenerated squad and they are one of the favourites for the 2022 First Division title.

Fans have also returned to Turner’s Cross, with thousands coming to the stadium in the closing weeks of the 2021 season. There is an overall renewed sense of belief and optimism around the club.

The road back from the brink was long, and a journey that began with the basics: Appointing a manager.

The club had an empty seat ever since Neal Fenn departed in October 2020, and even at that, he was only in charge of City for 14 months.

The announcement was made on Christmas Eve, and it radiated with City fans of all ages. Club legend Colin Healy — who played at the highest levels of the game — was the new manager.

Cork City manager Colin Healy. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Cork City manager Colin Healy. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

The new boss quickly set out to build a squad for the new season. This news was followed the by re-signing of fan favourite midfielder Gearoid Morrissey. City kept the momentum up by securing a licence for the 2021 First Division.

After their issues the year before — which saw City’s original application for a licence rejected — the club were granted theirs by the FAI with no fuss. This was communicated via a statement from Foras, which drew attention to the club’s rapid transformation.

“Although securing a licence should be rudimentary for a club such as Cork City FC, it is refreshing that after an incredibly difficult 12 months; both on the back of nearly going out of business at the beginning of 2020, and through dealing with severe uncertainty related to the pandemic, that we have not had any issues raised by the governing body for our 2021 licence application.”

With the licence granted, City began to prepare a league season that would begin behind closed doors.

“It’s not the same, absolutely not the same,” Colin Healy said about playing in empty stadia that May.

The fans are everything. I’m just speaking from a Cork point of view, without fans when you’re down at Turner’s Cross.

“The place is quiet. You can hear the cars passing. It’s quiet. It’s just when the fans are in there, it’s a totally different game.

“You hear them singing, you see all the kids come in with the Cork City jerseys, you see the players, their families are in, it’s a totally different game.”

The eeriness of empty terraces had a noticeable impact on City’s results. After beating Cobh Ramblers 4-1 on the opening night of the season, they lost four league games in a row.

At the midseason break, City were in the bottom three of the First Division. Promotion was a world away from where the squad wanted to be. A small number of fans came back in for a league game against Cabinteely.

This was part of a pilot event by the Government and 600 people went through the turnstiles that evening.

Over the following weeks, restrictions slowly lifted and more and more people went to Turner’s Cross to watch Cork City play.

The clicking of the turnstiles made a huge difference to results on the pitch. City closed out 2021 by going unbeaten in their last five games.

Dylan McGlade of Cork City celebrates with Kevin O'Connor of Cork City. Picture: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Dylan McGlade of Cork City celebrates with Kevin O'Connor of Cork City. Picture: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

During this run, they demolished promotion-chasing Galway United 3-0 at Turner’s Cross.

They also knocked Premier Divisions side Sligo Rovers out of the FAI Cup, which was a massive statement from Colin Healy’s young side.

The feel-good factor around the club was enhanced by the promotion a number of youth academy players to the first team.

HOMEGROWN

On the final night of the First Division season, with five of the starting 11 against Galway United were graduates from the club’s academy. Four of the subs who came on — Cian Bargary, Cathal Heffernan, Darragh Crowley, and Beineon O’Brien-Whitmarsh — were also graduates from City’s academy.

City’s strong and spirited finish has bled into 2022 with the mood around Healy’s squad. Not only have they retained top players like George Heaven and Dylan McGlade; they have captured some of the most sought after signatures in the country.

One player is Barry Coffey, who joined on loan from Celtic in 2021 and he scored five times in 12 appearances. 

Two years on after a day of funeral-like resonance, Cork City are thriving.

The club have climbed back from the brink to a steadied and strengthened ship. Fans are back in numbers, and there’s a genuine belief in the squad that Colin Healy has built.

All that needs to be done now is for the club go on and win promotion to the Premier Division, which will put Cork City back where they truly belong.

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