FEW players encapsulate the reality of radical change at Cork City quite like Daire O’Connor.
After a period of steep decline which saw the double winners of 2017 turn relegation battlers in 2019 — and a host of established names follow manager John Caulfield and his assistant and successor John Cotter out the door — the talented winger finds himself in the unlikely position, after little more than a year with the club, of being something like a senior pro in a dressing room which cuts a strikingly youthful profile ahead of the new season.
“Absolutely,” says O’Connor.
“The first game of the season last year, I’d say myself and Dan Casey would have been probably the youngest on the team. And this season, looking ‘round the squad, aside from Gearoid Morrissey (28), I’d say myself and Dylan McGlade (24) are probably the next two oldest. And I’m only 22, like.
“I came in as a young player to be bedded in last year and it’s weird how everything has changed. This year, I’m nearly the one welcoming people in, showing people the ropes, telling then what to expect from the fans.
“New players are coming in and asking me all these questions. Which is a strange turnaround because 12 months ago I was the one asking those questions. But by a process of elimination I’m one of the last ones left.”
Former Turner’s Cross favourite Neale Fenn says he was fully aware of what lay in store when he was appointed manager of a struggling side last August.
Having steadied the ship sufficiently to keep the Rebels in the Premier Division, he understood that, at that time, the related issues of a player exodus and a financial squeeze meant he would effectively be starting from scratch going into 2020.
“One of the reasons I got the job is that I managed Longford, working with a small budget — maybe not by First Division standards — but small by League standards,” he says.
“At Longford, I had to rebuild the squad every year because in the First Division everyone is out of contract so you’re negotiating and haggling, trying to keep some lads and trying to convince others to sign for you.
“Which is what I’ve been doing here. We’ve gone for a whole rebuild but I was fully aware that that was what was going to happen.”
As he seeks to get the best out of a team which, with skipper Morrissey as a notable exception, will be largely comprised of fresh faces, young loan signings and U19 graduates, Fenn doesn’t need to be reminded about Alan Hansen’s infamous line… “You’ll never win anything with kids, yeah,” he smiles.
“Look, we have to appreciate where we are. Ideally we’d have more of a mix but we’re not living in an ideal world. There’s no point in saying we wish we had older players or this or that, there’s no point.
“We haven’t. But I think the players we’ve brought in are very good. Will they make mistakes because they’re not experienced? Yeah. But they’ll also give us something that experienced players won’t. The players we’ve got, I believe, are exciting to watch, I really do.”
Promoted Shelbourne are the visitors on opening night at Turner’s Cross tonight but the fixture schedule has thrown up a real double-whammy for Fenn’s fledglings in their next two games — away to Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk in the space of three days.
“Yeah, it’s tough,” the manager concedes, “but as much as we want to get off to a good start, I wouldn’t be getting carried away if we do and I certainly wouldn’t be in dismay if we don’t. If we lose the first couple of games, are we going to rip up everything and say we’ve been doing it all wrong for the last six weeks? No. We’re going to believe in what we’re doing.”
For his part, Daire O’Connor reckons City can surprise those who are already dismissing them as also-rans.
“I think for once it’ll massively help us going in as underdogs,” he says.
“I don’t want to make comparisons in case it blows up in my face later on in the season but if you look at Bohs this time last year, they were completely written off. They were marked for relegation, they were bringing in a few loan signings from England and they were bringing players up from their 19s.
“And when I say we’re going to have to fight like wolves on the pitch, that doesn’t mean there’s no style of play. I meant it more in terms of passion and aggression rather than scrapping for points.
“We’ve been working all pre-season on playing good football. But football with a purpose. There’s no point in just having the ball if you’re not going to do something productive with it.
“And I can tell already that we have a really good group. It almost feels like an U23 team in a way. We’re all of a similar age and we’re all of the mindset that we have a point to prove. And hopefully the fans will realise that in the early days and get behind us.”
Two men who could never be mistaken for U23s are Mark McNulty and Alan Bennett.
And while it’s fully expected the veterans will be concentrating on coaching and back-up duties this season — with McNulty the second-choice goalkeeper behind new signing Liam Bossin — they will still be available to answer the call to arms if required.
“I think they’ve both got a huge part to play for us,” Neale Fenn observes.
“They’re good lads to be around the dressing room. And when you have got a young squad, some of them coming from different environments and different clubs, you need to make sure they all buy into the concept of Cork City and what we stand for, our values and our beliefs.
“And that’s what Nults and Benno and Gearoid bring.”
In terms of the wholesale transformation of the panel, Alec Byrne can be counted as an inbetweener in the sense that John Caulfield had the highly-rated midfielder training with the seniors when he was just 17 and, though still only 20, he already has 11 first team appearances under his belt.
“John had me in full-time when I was on school holidays and that was when the double-winners were around,” he reflects.
“So, on a day-to-day basis I was training with the best players, like Seani (Maguire) and Kevin (O’Connor).
“The high standards of the likes of Stephen Dooley and Jimmy Keohane, that’s what I needed at such a young age. That was the next level that I wanted to get to.
“I was there and saw what it was like when they were winning, the fans adored all the players. Last year was a complete contrast with the kind of pressure you have to play under.
“Going from champions to relegation, it’s a different kind of learning about how you have to conduct yourself. You could see how it affected the mood in the camp and how much it hurt the senior pros.”
But, like all at Cork City, he is now relishing the opportunity to try to put things right.
“I took a positive from last season,” he declares, “and that was a determination that I never wanted to be in that situation again.”