It’s the New Firm — but not as we know it.
For most of the last five seasons, the rest of the League of Ireland could only look on enviously as Cork City and Dundalk dominated the domestic landscape and repeatedly divided up the league and cup spoils.
But as the big two renew acquaintance at Turner’s Cross tonight the tectonic plates have shifted, with the great rivalry given an unfamiliar twist.
Not so much for Dundalk who, after a stuttering start to the post-Stephen Kenny era, have seen something much more like normal service resumed in recent weeks, Vinny Perth’s team now back in a familiar place atop the table, albeit only on goal difference from Shamrock Rovers.
For third-from-bottom Cork City, however, that lofty position is still a long way off, despite the back-to-back wins over Bohemians and UCD which have restored stability as well as hope after the dismal run of results which culminated in the departure of long-serving manager John Caulfield.
But even with 15 points currently separating the two sides, the continuing allure of this fixture should ensure a significant bump in the attendance tonight.
Caulfield’s former assistant John Cotter is now the man at the interim helm and knows full well his team’s modest but welcome resurgence is about to be put to its biggest test yet against a side which comes into the match on a seven-game unbeaten run.
“Dundalk were missing a few key players earlier in the season, so there was no doubt that they would climb up the table when they got them back,” he says.
Garry Buckley misses out through suspension for City while Gearóid Morrissey, Dan Casey, Graham Cummins and Pierce Phillips have all suffered with knocks during the week and will be assessed ahead of the game.
For the visitors, Jamie McGrath and Robbie Benson, the latter with a long-term injury, are out of tonight’s game while Daniel Kelly is a doubt and Sean Hoare is suspended.
But the good news for the reigning champions, and the bad news for City, is that top scorer Patrick Hoban returns from serving his one-match suspension.
Assessing tonight’s challenge on Leeside, Lilywhites midfielder Patrick McEleney says: “I have never had an easy game in my life down there and I know the rest of the squad haven’t either. Cork have had a bit of form over the past few weeks with the two wins but we will be ready.”
Those are sentiments echoed by Dundalk first-team coach John Gill.
“It has been a great rivalry between ourselves and Cork City over the past few years,” he reflects.
“There have been some great battles between the two sides and this will be no different. We have huge respect for Cork City. We are looking forward to what will be a difficult game against a very good side.”
If Cork City can do them a favour against Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers will hope to capitalise and regain the top spot with a positive result at UCD.
From his own time with Dundalk, Ronan Finn, who is suspended for the Hoops tonight, says he is not the least surprised to see the Lilywhites back on top.
“When you win trophies, you’re confident,” he says.
Elsewhere in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division tonight, there’s another Dublin derby as St Patrick’s Athletic host Bohemians at Richmond Park while Waterford make the long trip to Ballybofey to take on Finn Harps at Finn Park (8pm).