When it comes to Cork City and League of Ireland titles, it seems that twelve is the magic number.
The club won its first in 1993, its second in 2005 and now, another dozen years on, they have done it for the third time – and, notwithstanding a recent wobble or three, the glittering prize is richly deserved.
This season, in contrast to their previous triumphs, there were no protracted play-offs or final night drama to keep the faithful chewing their fingernails until the very last ball was kicked.
True, a growing nervousness had been apparent as a once seemingly unassailable lead was gradually whittled away over the last two months by a rejuvenated Dundalk but, with City reasserting their true character in that 1-1 draw with the reigning champions in front of a packed Turner’s Cross a few weeks back, any real chance of a photo finish was extinguished.
City began their 2017 mission in less pulsating circumstances but with what was, in retrospect, a meaningful statement of intent. Despite atrocious conditions and the visitors being reduced to ten men for the final 15 minutes after Garry Buckley had been sent off, it was up in Finn Park on the opening night in February that, on the occasion of John Caulfield’s 100th game in charge of the club, City’s hard-fought 0-1 win over Harps saw them embark on a year of plenty which could yet end with them celebrating a double.
And, in a further taste of things to come, the winning goal that night in Ballybofey was scored by Sean Maguire, his first of 20 in the course of a truncated league campaign which would see the ace marksman help his team take giant steps towards the title before his departure for Preston, culminating in a hat-trick against Dundalk at Oriel Park on a balmy evening in early June when a 3-0 victory for City definitively marked the changing of the guard at the top of the domestic game.
That ruthless dethroning of the reigning champions was among a number of swaggering performances by Cork this year but although it has seemed like forever since they had one hand on the trophy, it was hardly a season of plain-sailing for the team.
Even before the late disruption to their momentum, there were nights when they weren’t on song.
However, in the way of champions-elect, were still able to dig deep enough to carve out a win while, from the departure of Kenny Browne on the eve of the season, through the unfortunate injury suffered by club captain Johnny Dunleavy, to the double whammy of losing Sean Maguire and Kevin O’Connor, there was periodic and significant disruption to John Caulfield’s plans which required the conducting of running repairs even as all concerned tried to keep their eyes fixed firmly on the prize.
But, like his players, the manager was ultimately able to solve all the major problems put in front of him, his acumen in the market reflected in the acquisition of the likes of Ryan Delaney, Jimmy Keohane and, in particular, the dynamic Conor McCormack and, later, in the retention of Maguire and O’Connor through to July, by which time the heaviest lifting in the title challenge had already been done.
Watch as Cork City celebrate their league title win. This is the special moment for Cork. pic.twitter.com/hQrqUgqlX2— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) October 17, 2017
But even if Maguire was the key figure, repeatedly hogging the headlines with his prolific strike rate and crucial link-up play, it would be grossly unfair to label City a one-man team.
Karl Sheppard and the powerhouse midfield duo of Garry Buckley and Gearoid Morrissey all did their bit to boost the goal tally, Stephen Dooley was a constant menace out wide and the experience of Mark McNulty and Alan Bennett helped provide vital reassurance at the back.
And that’s just to name a handful of all those on the pitch who are fully deserving of their league winners’ medals. Because, as with all true champions, Cork City’s success has been a story not just of one man, one manager or even one team but of a squad, a staff and a club – including the supporters who make Turner’s Cross such a vibrant place to watch a game of football — all pulling in the same direction.
The good times are a just reward for all those who kept the faith when, not so many years ago, it looked like the club might have no future at all.
"We felt we could go to another level" - Cork City manager John Caulfield on winning the Airtricity League Premier Division. pic.twitter.com/bqRPsPCwNq— Soccer Republic (@SoccRepublic) October 17, 2017
With the blooding of promising talent like Shane Griffin and the arrival of Kieran Sadlier, the work is already underway to try and ensure that it will be a case of onwards and upwards next season, though it’s already abundantly clear that finding someone to fill Sean Maguire’s boots is the most daunting of a number of challenges which John Caulfield will face going into his fifth season as manager — and his first in charge of a team who will be Ireland’s representatives in the Champions League.
But that’s for another day. As is the prospect of an historic double when City lock horns once again with Dundalk at the Aviva in the FAI Cup final.
In the meantime, Cork City are fully entitled to relish, for the third time, the heady sensation of planting the Rebel flag at the highest summit in the domestic game.
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