Cork City v Dundalk: Before a ball was kicked, Cork City had one over their great rivals Dundalk this season.
It wasn’t the last-gasp FAI Cup final win over the Lillywhites, it wasn’t Dundalk’s loss of player of the year Daryl Horgan. It wasn’t the end of the artificial surface at Oriel Park and it wasn’t City’s re-signing of striker Sean Maguire.
No; it was simply down to a numbers game. The 33-game nature of the League of Ireland means sides play each other three times, with the extra date of home advantage switching annually.
That means that this year, Cork City will face their biggest rivals Dundalk — and second-placed Derry City too — twice at home and only once away.
Small wonder, then, that John Caulfield has been hammering home the message that City must make the most of their home games.
A win this afternoon will take City six points clear at the top of the SSE Airtricity Premier Division with just six games played.
Don’t expect City to get carried away yet though.Truth be told, they were lucky to get out of Tallaght on St Patrick’s Day with a 2-1 victory over Shamrock Rovers and the players know it.
“We didn’t play well but we got the win, that didn’t happen last year,” says City full-back Kevin O’Connor. “Winning the cup last year kicked everyone on a bit and it’s given us the know-how of how to get through games because that’s what we did in the cup final: We grinded it out.
“We talked all week that we haven’t hit our heights yet this year. The season’s only getting started, the business end comes when there’s 10 games to go or so. We know we haven’t played our best football and I still think there’s lot more to come from this group.
“Over the last few games we’ve found a way to get back and win and once we go a goal down we still know we’ve plenty of time, we will get chances and we have the people who can put them away.”
One man in particular is showing he can put them away.
Kilkenny man Sean Maguire is proving the coolest Cat in Cork and has carried on where he left off last year, with six goals already this season.
“Once you have him, you’ve always got a chance,” says O’Connor. “Our backline is very solid and we know we’re going to make chances, and we know if Seanie gets a chance he’s going to take it.”
Dundalk have their own star man this year in Patrick McEleney. Having lost 3-1 at Derry City, Dundalk bounced back with a 3-0 win at St Pat’s, where McEleney’s golazo showed the Lillywhites have found a new talisman. Last season, Daryl Horgan stepped up in the absence of 2015 player of the year Richie Towell. Now McEleney is taking the lead role for the Oriel Park outfit.
O’Connor accepts the Derry man will need close attention. “Ah, he’s a great player, he’s gifted,” says the former Ireland U21 man, “He can change a game in the blink of an eye. But a lot of teams sit off and let them play. That’s not our game — we press the life out of teams.
“We’ve been on top of them lately and I think they know that. We expect them to come out with the bit between their teeth and give us a right go.
“They’re three points behind so we expect a backlash but anything they throw at us we know we’re good enough to throw back at them.”
Dundalk come into the game on the back of an impressive 3-0 win over St Pat’s, and boss Stephen Kenny says last season’s European success has only increased their hunger for success.
“The players look forward to these games. That’s what we want. The players want to play in front of big houses and we enjoy that. We enjoy the challenge.”
City boss John Caulfield believes Dundalk are still favourites for the title this season.
”I think there’s a lot of baloney spoken about Dundalk,” says Caulfield. “They are still the force, they’re still the team, and while there’s challengers like ourselves and Derry, Dundalk still have the players and the trophies on the shelf going for four in a row. They must be relishing that people are doubting them but we haven’t taken our eye off the ball.”
City are without midfielder Greg Bolger while captain John Dunleavy is doubtful. Dundalk skipper Stephen O’Donnell is out with a thigh strain but keeper Gary Rogers looks set to start after making a successful return against St Pat’s.
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