With Dundalk on the brink of wrapping up their third league title in a row, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Cork City’s season will be defined, for many, by how they fare in next month’s cup final against the side which is now on course to do a double-double.
“If you look at where we were to where we are - second in the league again, having scored more goals and conceded less, back in the cup final - the gap is much narrower, but the question will always be: have you won a trophy or haven’t you?” says City manager John Caulfield.
“And to people who want to criticise me or the team, it doesn’t matter that Dundalk might be the best team in the league ever. Or that they have a bigger budget.
“There will always be a certain element who say, ‘we don’t care, we just want you to win’.
“But that’s reality. If we win the cup, you can say it has been a fantastic season for us.
“But if we don’t, there will be a spin put on it that it’s not good enough.
“But this is the game, I’m well aware of that, and I’m working my socks off to make us better year in, year out.”
Caulfield is certainly entitled to reflect with satisfaction on the fact that his side have won many admirers for their progressive brand of football.
He can also note that they have beaten Dundalk two out of three times in the league as well as setting up a mouth-watering return meeting with their arch rivals at the Aviva Stadium.
But with the pain of his team’s defeat in Oriel Park last week only deepened by a shock loss to St Patrick’s Athletic on Monday night, the first order of business is to restore spirits in the knowledge that there’s such a big prize still to play for.
“Because we’ve got a lot of new players this year who weren’t part of the last two years, we’re certainly a much better team and played much better ball – but the fact is that we lost what was effectively the title-decider in Oriel last week,” says Caulfield.
“At the end of the day they’re going to win the league and we’re not.
“And so as a manager you are disappointed because you put your heart and soul into winning the league this year and, for eight months you’re there, and then it’s gone.
“But all you can do in sport is bounce back and we have to go into the cup final now as if our lives depended on it.”
For the final three games of the league season, beginning with Pat’s visiting Turner’s Cross on Friday, Caulfield will seek to balance his habitual will to win with a policy of reshuffling the troops so that players like Mark O’Sullivan, Danny Morrissey, Gearoid Morrissey and Michael McSweeney get some much-needed game time ahead of the cup final.
“I don’t want to lose any games and winning is a good habit but, at the same time, we’ve ended up with a lot of games in a short period of time using a lot of the same players,” he says.
“So, you’re hoping a couple of the guys that could come in will put themselves in contention to start in the cup final. And that others who might come on in the game will be ready to come on.”
On the subject of the miserable attendances at the Pat’s-Cork and Longford-Dundalk games on Monday night – between them, the two matches attracted only 864 people - Caulfield says he’s “blue in the face” trying to promote solutions to some of the problems which ail the league.
While he felt calls for an extension to a heavily congested fixture list simply came far too late in the current campaign to be workable, he is strongly in favour of a longer season and the elimination of mid-week fixtures, once the schedule is planned well in advance.
“We need to get a system where, at the start of the season, all the matches in the league are fixed only for a Friday night,” he says.
“Any midweek match, whether it’s in Cork or Dundalk or wherever, you’re always down on your crowd.
“A simple solution is to start two weeks earlier or add a week either side and cut your mid-season break.
“It’s now we need to start canvassing about this for next season."
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