LIAM MACKEY: How Cork City could still lose the league

There appears to be a widespread and, dare I say, complacent acceptance in League of Ireland circles that, just because they are unbeaten and 18 points clear at the half-way mark, nothing can now stop Cork City from going on to be crowned SSE Airtricity League champions for 2017, writes Liam Mackey.

This, of course, is lazy and even crazy thinking since it overlooks a number of eminently plausible ways in which the title might not yet end up going south.

The most obvious one is that, between now and October, the world is hit by a mass extinction event, such as heralded the sudden and brutal demise of the poor old dinosaurs who, a bit like Cork City this season, were happily stomping on all-comers until hit by that unexpected bolt from the blue and, in a flash as it were, found themselves replaced in the pecking order by tenacious little mammals.

(No disrespect towards Finn Harps implied).

And if City’s title charge isn’t to be halted by a rogue asteroid, one also has to consider the live possibility that those two well-known gaffers, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, go mad — or, rather, madder — and begin lobbing intercontinental ballistic missiles at each other, a development which one could well imagine having quite a significant impact on the excellent drainage at Turner’s Cross, not to mention creating other difficult infrastructural problems for the League as a whole.

A third alternative is that City suffer a catastrophic collapse in form and lose their next dozen or so games on the spin, even as Dundalk are rediscovering their mojo and putting together a protracted winning run en route to, once again, pipping Cork at the post yet again and claiming that record-equalling four-in-a-row.

But that’s clearly a much less convincing scenario than the others outlined above.

And you don’t have to take my word for it. Even before Cork confirmed the changing of the guard in Irish football’s New Firm with their swaggering display at Oriel Park last Friday, there were signs that some among the local faithful were already preparing to hoist the lilywhite flag. A club’s match programme is usually a reliable source of nothing but rose-tinted enthusiasm and blinkered optimism about the home side side’s chances of, variously, winning a trophy, avoiding the drop, achieving mid-table mediocrity or even just living to fight another day (this is the League of Ireland, after all) but, before kick-off last Friday, one could detect a rather different tone in the pages of the always excellent Dundalk FC Magazine.

Here was The Spectator, in an article at the back of the mag, referring to the night’s table-topping visitors as “a barely visible dot on the horizon” and even suggesting that his own club’s challenge now was to “drag themselves up to Cork’s new level.”

All of which prompted the author’s gritted-teeth conclusion:

“So grudgingly we’ll welcome our new Leeside overlords. You’ll have to forcibly prise the trophy from our cold dead Lilywhite hands – but that will probably happen in August. Meanwhile, we shall continue to plot our revenge…”

But they certainly weren’t about to get their revenge that night, Cork exceeding even the programme’s billing by putting three without reply past the dazed champions, Sean Maguire returning to haunt his old club with the first hat-trick of his prolific City career.

The only cloud on the horizon for Cork is that the league’s leading goalscorer will soon be off to Preston, where he will be joined by Kevin O’Connor, whose attacking full-back play and expertise with the dead ball have also been significant features in Cork’s lording it above all the rest this season.

Cork City supporters celebrate the second goal in the 3-0 win over Dundalk at Oriel Park. Sean Maguire scored all three goals against the reigning champions and the prolific striker will be a big loss when he joins Preston at the end of next month. Picture: Ramsey Cardy
Cork City supporters celebrate the second goal in the 3-0 win over Dundalk at Oriel Park. Sean Maguire scored all three goals against the reigning champions and the prolific striker will be a big loss when he joins Preston at the end of next month. Picture: Ramsey Cardy

Then there’s the uncertain short-term future of Ryan Delaney, an increasingly influential presence at the back — as well as a source of a few goals at the other end of the pitch — since coming on a loan spell from Burton which is due to end on June 30.

While the chances of City retaining Delaney are put at 50-50, manager John Caulfield is already known to be casting his eye over possible replacements upfront and in defence, though it’s understood that in terms of filling the gap which will be left by the exit of O’Connor to Deepdale — which City hope won’t be until the end of July, as has already been agreed in the case of Maguire — there is confidence at Turner’s Cross that, in Shane Griffin, they have the man for the job already on board.

What City will want to avoid above all else is a repeat of the clearly destabilising impact which the departure of key players like Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle and Ronan Finn has had on Dundalk’s ability to defend their trio of titles this season.

But while it would be foolish to underplay the consequences of the loss, in particular, of a goalmine like Maguire — the Cork faithful are entitled to still retain confidence about the future based on the success Caufield has already had in bringing in new faces to improve his team at the start of the season. Not regarded as a marquee name upon arrival, Conor McCormack, to pick the most notable example, has been a revelation anchoring the midfield for City — although ‘anchoring’ is hardly the most appropriate word to describe such a committed, high-energy operator, a player whose ability to sniff out and snuff out danger probably has no equal in the league this season.

There’s also the fact that, despite having had to reshuffle his troops to cope with injury a number of times this season, the strength in depth of the current squad ensured no drop in standards, as this special Cork team, even on those occasions when not playing at full throttle for the full 90 minutes, continued to find ways to win every game, bar one.

And, yet, to return to the opening theme, I still maintain that there can be no room for complacency. I mean, what if Preston come back next week, waving their unfeasibly large chequebook (by LOI standards) and simply snap up the entire Cork City squad?

It might not be an apocalyptic end-of-days event but it could still put a bit of a dent in that 18-point lead, right enough.

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