Runaway leaders thanks to an explosive run of 20 wins in their first 21 games, Cork travelled to Tallaght at the start of September knowing a win against Shamrock Rovers and a slip from Dundalk on the same night would seal their status as champions.
They lost 3-1.
The same mathematics applied last night: beat Limerick and they could crack open the champagne if Dundalk didn’t account for Drogheda United. Yet again Cork’s own difficulties made events in Oriel Park all but moot on the night.
It’s now four losses in their last seven league games, their form flatlining since Sean Maguire made Preston his new postal address, but there was enough in this performance to ward off any sense of panic as the season winds down.
Caulfield would have gladly accepted the chance to win the league with a defeat of Dundalk on home turf at the start of the season and that prospect of ending the Louth side’s domestic dominance after a hat-trick of titles will be no bad thing in two days’ time.
Limerick, struggling to keep the spectre of relegation from the door, had to withstand a suffocating second-half siege here, but they held on to claim three vital points thanks to a one-two of quick body blows early in the opening period.
“It’s great to get three points,” man of the match and former Cork player Chiedozie Ogbene told RTÉ.
“It wasn’t easy. I thought we dug deep goes to show with hard work anything is possible. They’re a team with class and quality and it shows that hard work does make a difference on a night like this.”
And to think Cork had started so well.
Kieran Sadlier saw a shot deflected wide for a corner and, from that, Robbie Williams sent a header goalwards that Shane Tracy guided away from danger. There were only a couple of minutes on the clock by then.
Karl Sheppard continued the early trend in sending another header over the bar from Sadlier’s inswinger but the evening’s entertainment took an unexpected twist when the hosts struck for two goals within three minutes.
So solid defensively all year, Cork leaked three to Shamrock Rovers in that last league tie at the start of September and the concession of Limerick’s opener started with Greg Bolger’s pass backwards which Robbie Williams left to goalkeeper Mark McNulty.
Problem was the latter hadn’t expected it but the finish from Rodrigo Tosi was delicious: a delicate dink over the stopper’s head and in off the butt of the far post whilst on the run. A lovely touch for a big man, as the saying goes.
There wasn’t ten minutes played when the second came. Chiedozie Ogbene poured the foundations with a run on the break which was only halted by a challenge from Bolger. A fair one said the Cork skipper, a free said the referee.
The punishment, yet again, was considerable.
Lee J Lynch and Tracy stood over the ball a good 25 yards out from goal and it was the latter, a week on from his testimonial here at Markets Field, who stepped up to smack a gorgeous left-footer in off the same post as before.
There was a wonderful game of football breaking out by now and Cork halved the deficit on 14 minutes when Sadlier rose highest at the Limerick back post to head a Stephen Dooley past the exposed Clarke.
Sadlier was a constant menace down that flank, and only Clarke’s legs prevented him from claiming an equaliser seven minutes before the break, but the influence of Ogbene on the far wing was just as pronounced.
Bolger and Beattie would both take the break with yellows earned for tackles on their former clubmate whose pace and control, allied with Tracy’s accurate left boot, made the entire wing a regular source of concern for the league leaders.
A to and fro affair in the first period, Cork turned the screw after it.
Gearoid Morrissey, Sheppard, Garry Buckley, Sadlier and more besides all had chances to net an equaliser but only to be denied by a combination of Clarke or some resolute last-ditch defending that bodes well for Limerick in their quest for safety.
The permutations continue. At both ends.
B Clarke; B Cotter, T Whitehead, D O’Connor, S Tracy; B Hery; LJ Lynch, S Duggan, S Kenny; R Tosi, C Ogbene.
D Clarke for Cotter (HT); J Crowe for Kenny (79); P Berki for Tosi (83);
M McNulty; S Beattie, R Williams, R Delaney, S Griffin; G Morrissey, G Bolger; S Dooley, J Keohane, K Sadlier; K Sheppard.
G Buckley for Beattie (HT); C Ellis for Bolger (70); A Campion for Dooley (89).