Like Jose Mourinho, John Caulfield knows how to look after his own constituency, says Liam Mackey.
Like ‘The Special One’ at Stamford Bridge, ‘The Rebel One’ at Turner’s Cross has proved adept at creating, if not quite a siege mentality comparable to the epic version being fostered in west London, then certainly a touch of us-against-the-world when it comes to Cork City’s place in the scheme of things.
On a personal and professional level, there was a hint of that before a ball was even kicked last season when, upon taking up his position as a managerial first-timer in the League of Ireland, Caulfield readily conceded that his appointment would raise eyes beyond Leeside.
“I can see the way people are viewing it, even some other managers,” he told me at the time. “‘This guy doesn’t realise the level’. I can see that.”
Unspoken but strongly implied, I felt, were the words: “I’ll show ‘em.”
And, so he did, as the ‘I’ quickly became ‘we’. Throughout the season, Caulfield was never slow to defend his team’s credentials in the face of perceived scepticism, returning time and again to the theme of City being written off as real title-contenders — especially when a couple of big results went against them — but how he always believed they had the quality and resilience to prove the doubters wrong.
There was more than one mention too of how, in contrast to the Dublin clubs in particular, Cork had a lot more energy-sapping travelling to contend with as they roamed the nation in the marathon pursuit of the ultimate prize — something which, in the end, would only be denied them on the final night of the season, and only then by the best team in the country.
I don’t doubt Caulfield, as passionate a football man as you will find, speaks from the heart when it comes to anything at all to do with the football club with which, as a resident Hall Of Famer, he is synonymous.
But, a smart football man too, he also speaks from the head, so that I’ve always suspected a bit of shrewd strategic thinking feeds into his willingness to tap into that “second city, second to none” ethos which is given such uplifting vocal expression in the Shed on big nights at the Cross.
And, of course, he’s right to do so, football in the top flight being in large part about finding ways to get that vital edge. But as City prepare to kick-off the new league season at the Showgrounds, this evening, it’s inarguable Caulfield, and the club, find themselves in a very different situation to this time last year.
Exhibit A: at the official league launch in the Aviva Stadium last week, media representatives were polled on their predictions for the season ahead.
And the result, albeit hardly scientific, was clear-cut: a majority 30% went for Cork to win the title, followed by 20% for Rovers and Pats with, surprisingly, the reigning champions, Dundalk, only fourth in line on 10%.
So when I caught up with John Caulfield shortly afterwards, I had to ask him, admittedly with a grin, whither all the Rebel-rousing now after we so-called experts — and, not least, the pillars of the Dublin meeja establishment — had just anointed his side as champions-in-waiting?
Returning the smile, the City boss replied: “The only good thing is that I don’t take too much notice of predictions so that’s no different to last year. But, yeah, it’s a different challenge for us this year — we’re no longer an unknown.”
More than that, surely, City have become a prize scalp?
“We have, and I think what will happen this year is that we’ll find a lot of teams will come down to Cork and try to sit back and play on the counter-attack. So a big difference this year is that it will be a lot more testing for us at home, I think.
"Our home record last year was very good but, from the crowd’s point of view, I think they’re going to have to be more patient because teams will try and frustrate us. So the challenge is: can we step up to the mark? I think we’re capable of being in the top three or four and challenging throughout the year.”
But expectations, like predictions, are there to be confounded.
“You just don’t know,” says Caulfield. “For example, you have Liam Miller coming in. Can he adjust to this level? We all know he’s played at the top level so he’ll get a lot of personal attention, a lot of stuff at the start.
"How can he handle it? Can he deal with it? Bennett coming back is good for us because he knows the league.
“Danny Morrissey? He’s close but, at the end of the day, he’s a young man of 21 who’s had a year out. I think he’s getting close to where he was but the challenge for him is first, can he get into the team and, if he does, can he get goals?
"We have himself, young Lehane who’s coming through is very good, we’ve signed Sheppard, obviously (Mark) O’Sullivan is there from last year and we still have Flynny. O’Sullivan did brilliantly for us last year but we need someone else to start chipping in with goals.”
All will begin to grow clearer in Sligo tonight. And, if it does all come together for Cork City this season, second to one really could become second to none.
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