Swapping the hoops and green shirts of Páirc Uí Chaoimh from earlier in the day for uniform black tie in City Hall later that night, it was quite the parade of football luminaries who took to the stage to pay further tribute to Liam Miller at the gala dinner in his honour last Tuesday.
Among them were the two Keanes, Roy and Robbie, Martin O’Neill, Denis Irwin, John O’Shea and Gary Neville, with interviewer Trevor Welch taking the opportunity to throw a few other football-related questions their way. So when it came time to speak to John Caulfield, it was probably inevitable that the Cork City manager would find himself having to field one about how his team’s title challenge has fizzled out in recent weeks.
“Well, Trevor, I came out tonight to enjoy the night,” Caulfield began with a rueful smile, his note-perfect response eliciting warm applause and sympathetic laughter. Then he got serious.
“The one thing about sport that everyone in this room knows is that when you’re down you get kicked and kicked again,” he said.
“And there is only one way to respond and that’s to get back up and that’s what we have to do. We have a cup semi-final on Sunday and we’ll see how we get on in that.”
The penultimate fixture in the FAI Cup will never be anything other than one of the biggest games in the domestic calendar but, on the back of City’s failure to successfully defend their league title — coupled with the fact that it was a rampant Bohemians who really blew their hopes out of the water two weeks ago — the cup holders’ visit to Dalymount Park tomorrow has taken on added significance.
You hear a lot of talk now of this being a last or, should they prevail tomorrow, second-last chance for City to ‘salvage’ something from a season of underachievement, with some of the more disenchanted elements in the City support even casting it as a potentially defining game in Caulfield’s management of the club.
Indeed, there are a few keyboard warriors out there who seem to have already decided that, regardless of what happens between now and season’s end, it’s time for a change at the top.
For the benefit of the proverbial visitor from Mars who, on the basis of access to Planet Twitter and a passing interest in League of Ireland football, is seeing this stuff and rubbing his huge cycloptic eye in disbelief, yes, my little green friend, this would be the manager of a club which did the double last season, won the cup the previous year and has never finished lower than second in the league in his first four seasons at the helm. And who, despite their recent slump, still look set to finish runners-up again in 2018 and are still in the running to make it three FAI Cups in a row.
Actually, never mind the Martian, I’ll wager there are a few parties much closer to home — from Waterford to Tallaght and from Derry to Bray — who must be looking on and asking what they wouldn’t give to be able to share in Cork City’s current woes.
Interestingly, there was some supportive comment this week from what many might regard as an unlikely source. Over the course of their raging ‘New Firm’ battle across the last five years, there has been little love lost between City and Dundalk but, even allowing for the fact that it’s easier to be gracious from a position of renewed strength, the Lilywhites’ Robbie Benson did provide some much-needed context and perspective.
“Maybe they (Cork) haven’t had the credit they deserve for their achievements,” he observed.
Which is true. To have taken City from where they are were five years ago to where they are now — and, last season, to have actually eclipsed one of the best League of Ireland teams of all-time — is simply an outstanding achievement on Caulfield’s part and one which simply can’t be dismissed as irrelevant because City’s standards dipped this season and the wheels came off in recent weeks.
Of course, Dundalk will be fully deserving of their title this year. Their impressive stats and the no less impressive quality of their football brook no argument, with the cool, commanding display they delivered in Turner’s Cross last week living up to the stuff of champions in every respect.
So credit to the powers that be at Oriel Park for the fact that, even with new investment on the line, they retained their faith in Stephen Kenny after it was his team’s turn to play second fiddle to City last season. (Incidentally, the powers that be at Rovers should still have sleepless nights about prematurely running him out the door in Tallaght).
While Pat Hoban and Michael Duffy have been the outstanding elements in a Dundalk side which has stayed true to its manager’s enlightened philosophy, John Caulfield’s efforts to build on the back of last year’s historic success for the club have clearly not been good enough to keep pace.
There are a number of factors which feed into that but there can be no getting away from the fact that, while their double-winning side could never be credibly dubbed a one-man team, City’s inability to adequately replace the exceptional Sean Maguire has turned out to be every bit as big an impediment as it always threatened to be.
When Cork don’t deliver results, the focus inevitably fixates on their style of play. In contrast to Dundalk’s fluid, expansive football, City under Caulfield have always been more direct, tending to put their more progressive moves together in the final third of the pitch.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — indeed, we have seen it many times provide its own brand of thrilling entertainment — but only when it’s imbued with the spirit, intensity and high tempo which became almost a trademark under the manager.
That those qualities have been distinctly lacking in the league run-in is clearly troubling and something which urgently needs to be addressed, especially with a Bohs side, brimming with confidence, once again lying in wait in Dalyer.
But even if second in the league and a semi in the cup is as good as it’s going to get for Cork City this season then, in my opinion, John Caulfield — assuming he has the appetite to go again next time — has already amassed more than enough credit in the bank, and on the banks, to continue to be entrusted with the job.
Unlike the bould Jose, I wouldn’t expect him to come out demanding ‘respect, respect, respect’. But, you know what? He does.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved