Former Cork City player Derek Couglan on the end of the John Caulfield era and the daunting challenge facing his successor.
Dundalk and Cork City have been the top two teams in the country for five years in a row, an unprecedented neck and neck rivalry in the history of Irish football.
The driving forces in both clubs were the managers, Stephen Kenny and John Caulfield, and the way the curtain has now been drawn on this epic contest wouldn't look out of place in a Jeffrey Archer novel, with one protagonist landing the job of every Irish coach’s dream while his arch-rival departs his hometown club at a low point in their fortunes.
On paper Dundalk were a superior team to their Cork counterparts but Caulfield and his dogged combatants repeatedly stepped up to the plate, pushing Kenny’s stars year in and year out and, at the peak of their own achievements, claiming two FAI Cups and one Seanie Maguire-influenced league title.
During the war between the two clubs, City won more than their fair share of the battles yet it would always have been hard to imagine many of the Cork players making it into the Dundalk first 11 — testament, I believe, to Caulfield’s ability to squeeze every last drop of potential out of his ever-willing team.
But the relentless passion on display from everyone in Turner's Cross was a double-edged sword because, when you have set the achievement bar so high and you then experience dips in performance due to changes in personnel and a decline in belief, the vultures are always quick to circle. Even last season, when City were still chasing Dundalk, I was frequently being asked, ‘Is Caulfield in trouble?’ This knee-jerk reaction to a down period baffled me given how he consistently had the club fine dining at the top table on a comparatively shoestring budget.
With a big difference in financial power, Dundalk have gotten to the stage where they can sign the best players in the league and build a team accordingly while John Caulfield had to check the bargain basements hoping to discover a few golden nuggets. Depending on how successful your frugal shopping has been, this type of squad structuring inevitably imposes limitations on a team’s brand of football. City have frequently been criticised for their style of play but, sometimes, it’s just a case of one or two players making the difference in how a team expresses itself on the pitch. If you don’t have the type of players to play expansive, pacy, fluid football, then you have to adapt to maximize your chances of success.
But this is a fine balancing act because the paying public have limited patience for the more direct approach when results start to slide.The unforgiving side of football is that it’s a results-based business and, no matter how well you’ve performed in the past, patience eventually wears thin. Once fans start questioning the manager’s position it spreads like wildfire and, more often than not, those flames end up licking the paint of the dressing room walls. And if the players aren’t able to extinguish the blaze, the end is nigh, no matter who you are.
Especially being a hometown manager, this must be a difficult and emotional time for John Caulfield and his family right now. Sometimes the human side of the story isn't fully appreciated when it comes to this side of the game. Leaving behind a job that you've worked so hard at, and sacrificed so much of your personal life for, is tough in any industry, but to have the saga played out in public surely makes it that much harder again.
But when the history books are written it’s likely that John Caulfield will be remembered as the most successful Cork manager of all time. Caulfield and John Cotter, together with the rest of the staff, can hold their heads up high, proud in the knowledge that they spilled their guts trying to make The Rebel Army a force to be reckoned with again. Indeed, they achieved far more than that, hitting success levels never seen before at the club and which were inconceivable a short time before their appointment.
Replacing Caulfield will not be easy. The man who would tick all the boxes is Colin O’Brien but it’s hard to imagine how he could be prised away from the crucial role he’s playing with our elite youngsters in the international set up. Similarly, Colin Healy, who is responsible for the Cork City Academy, might be reluctant to abandon that project just yet. Personally I see Neil Fenn as the ideal successor, as he is a legend at Turner's Cross and has been doing a fine job with Longford Town in the First Division, playing attractive football to boot — no surprise considering the type of player he was. Irrespective of who takes over, I'd love to see Liam Kearney stay on the coaching ticket.
Caulfield’s successor not only has huge shoes to fill but also needs to hit the ground running if he is to restore confidence in the squad and salvage the season. The new boss will have to instantly weave his magic wand if City are to be ready for the big European challenge in the summer. How they fare in the Europa League could have a major impact on whether the new manager will be shopping in Brown Thomas or Penney’s — or, ideally and realistically, a bit of both.
Cork’s geographical position is a hindrance when trying to attract players away from the Dublin teams but can be counted a real strength when it comes to mining the best of Munster’s young talent. Unless FORAS, the architects of Cork City’s rise from the ashes, stumble upon a windfall, the focus must be on developing the Academy players in the hope that a couple can successfully graduate to the senior team each year.
But that’s a longer-term process which will require patience and trust from both the fans and the management team whose daunting challenge it will be to replicate the historic success of the John Caulfield era. I've no doubt that his phone will be hopping with calls from clubs looking to acquire his services as he has proved, both as a player and manager, that he knows the secret to winning. And, in football, that’s the most highly sought after trait to have.
In the meantime, thanks for the memories, Johnny.