From very hard-earned experience, football managers tend to be pragmatic people so, painful though it has been for John Caulfield to part company with his beloved Cork City, it’s probably fair to say that he would hardly have been completely shocked by the timing of his exit.
While it’s believed that Caulfield felt the season was still young enough for him to turn around the declining fortunes of his side, the intensifying pressure for change at the top after eight league games without a win eventually reached a tipping point this week.
So, for tonight’s game against Bohemians at Dalymount Park, it falls to the interim management team of John Cotter, with assistance from club legend Colin Healy and club captain Alan Bennett, to see if they can spark an immediate response from a group of players who have been so glaringly short of confidence and self-belief in recent times.
Ironically enough, after a stuttering start to the season, it was a Turner’s Cross performance back in mid-March against a then-unbeaten Bohs, of a kind that was entirely in keeping with the best of the Caulfield era — high pressure, high tempo, two goals scored, and a clean sheet — which strongly suggested that, coming on the back of a thrilling 4-3 victory up in Finn Park, the team were poised to get fully back into their stride.
But even on a night when City were able to put together their most complete performance of the season so far, they suffered a significant blow with the loss of Daire O’Connor to a dislocated shoulder.
Although he still needs to work on refining his decision-making — especially when it comes to releasing the ball at the right time — O’Connor’s sparkling ability to make an attacking difference by taking on and beating opponents was something the Rebels sorely missed in their next two league games against the strongest sides in the Premier Division, Dundalk, and Shamrock Rovers.
Morale-denting defeats in those crucial contests heralded an extended slump during which, over another half a dozen games, City scored just three goals, conceded eight, and mined a mere two points out of a possible 18.
That they couldn’t hold a lead at home against league basement-dwellers Finn Harps in what proved to be Caulfield’s last game in charge summed up the air of panicky desperation — evident in chances squandered at one end and defensive jitters at the other — which had enveloped a side who, individually and collectively, appeared at a complete loss for a way to get out of their rut.
Whether, after just one full day’s training with the players, the three wise men now charged with emergency running repairs can effect the instant transformation required to lift the team against high-flying Bohs remains to be seen.
Certainly, the travelling supporters will be hoping for that fabled ‘bounce’ which often follows a change in the dugout, though at times like this it can never be stressed enough that the players, as well as the manager, have to take their share of responsibility for failure as well as success.
“The most important thing for us is to go up to Dalymount Park and put in a performance,” said John Cotter yesterday.
“This morning’s training session went great, we’ve prepared well for the game and that is our full focus now. Every game is tough, the last few weeks have proved that, but we are looking forward to it.
"We want to go up there to try and win the game, and that is what we have been hammering home to the players this morning.
“We won 2-0 at Turner’s Cross and it was a night we were very good. That counts for nothing now though, and we know we are in for a tough game at Dalymount.
Colm Horgan, Gearóid Morrissey, and Garry Buckley are rated as doubtful ahead of the game but Conor McCormack, Garry Comerford, and Dan Casey are all available again after suspension.
For Bohs’ bright young things, unbeaten in four games and only behind second-placed Dundalk on goal difference in the Premier Division, the contrast in form with tonight’s visitors could hardly be more stark, with away wins against Shamrock Rovers and Derry City among their recent high-profile conquests in a busy run of games.
“Injury-wise we seem to have come through the fixtures quite well,” says Bohs manager Keith Long.
“We have one or two little niggles and that’s why we have rotated the team over recent games. But we look OK and are in reasonable shape.
"We do have concerns over Rob Cornwall and he is unlikely to play after he took a knock up in Derry.
“We are a little bit short with Aaron Barry (on loan from Cork) not being able to play, but we’ve come through the schedule quite well and are happy with the return of points that we have achieved in the past month.
“We have young players who are chomping at the bit ready to play. They can come in and show their ability. There’s more strength in depth, for the moment anyway.
“We might lose Aaron Barry during the transfer window and we might lose one or two other boys who are not quite seeing the game time that they would like.
“So that’s potentially an opportunity for a few of the other younger boys we have.”
That might also be the way of the future for Cork City but, for the visitors tonight, it’s all about a first step in trying to cut loose from the recent past.