McCormack was replaced after just 21 minutes in the 1-0 defeat to the Lilywhites at Oriel Park, and Caulfield admits he feared the Louth man would be sent off.
“Conor is a phenomenal player, he loves it here, and we love him. The problem you have is he was targeted,” the Cork City boss said yesterday. “In his history, he was sent off three times previously against Dundalk with other clubs, so it’s one of those situations where he’s on his last warning with 70 or 80 minutes of the match to play.
“It’s a very hard decision to make. you don’t want to do it but you are aware the next tackle he’s going to go because it was that kind of hostile atmosphere. It was difficult but there’s no issue with Conor.
“He understands the circumstances. He’ll be in the team tomorrow and every week from now on. Hopefully tomorrow we will see a totally different performance.”
After their 100% start to the season was brought to a shuddering halt by Dundalk on Friday, the Leesiders will be eager to make amends this evening against a Shamrock Rovers side that have clicked into gear in recent weeks.
Stephen Bradley’s Hoops have been touted as dark horses for this year’s SSE Airtricity Premier Division crown and have started to find form, scoring 12 goals in their past two matches with a 6-0 win over Bray Wanderers followed up with a 6-1 demolition of Derry City last weekend, a game in which Graham Burke scored four goals.
Games between City and Rovers proved feisty affairs last season, producing two wins apiece and two red cards. Caulfield expects another fierce battle, and hopes the champions can learn from their less-than-composed display last Friday.
“We have to be very disciplined,” warned Caulfield. “Against Dundalk we ended up in a situation early in the game where we got carried away a little bit. We have to be composed and I think Friday was a good learning experience.
“It’s unusual to be playing two title contenders back to back. We need a passionate, hostile atmosphere at Turner’s Cross. It will be feisty. Stephen Bradley is in his third season, they’re a massive club, and they’ve invested heavily. He has his teams playing with passion and energy and scoring goals, and they are aggressive.
“Once players are honest and give everything and go in hard, that’s what we all love, and once it’s not malicious, I think it’ll be a hectic game.”
Centre-back Alan Bennett, who missed the defeat to Dundalk, could return tonight while keeper Mark McNulty is expected to overcome a knock. Josh O’Hanlon is available.
Hoops coach Bradley knows his side need cool heads tonight. “Last year at Turner’s Cross we could have gone 2-0 up but we get a man sent off and concede within five minutes (Rovers lost 4-1),” he said.
“The scoreline suggested it was an easy night’s work for them but when you actually look at the game, we did well for large parts of it until the sending off. We’re going to need to be disciplined again like we have been this year and keep 11 players on the pitch. It’s about us sticking to our game plan.”
Midfielder Greg Bolger, a league winner with City last year, missed the win over Derry but could make a return to his old stomping ground this evening, while full-back Ethan Boyle is a doubt, said Bradley. “We’ll have to have a look at Ethan Boyle, he got a bad knock on his ankle on Friday. We need to assess Greg as well. Greg’s getting there.”
Elsewhere, Dundalk will try to build on the win over Cork in Inchicore as they face St Pat’s, who beat Bohs 1-0 last weekend. Dundalk left-back Dane Massey told the club’s website: “Confidence is flying now.” Saints boss Liam Buckley said: “Dundalk will travel in good spirits. They are going to be again challenging for the title. We need to be at it from the off as that was what cost us against Cork City in our last home game.”
Waterford, who top the Premier Division alongside Cork City, host Bohemians while Limerick face a trip to face Derry City in the first game at the redeveloped Brandywell.
Sligo Rovers will be without Patrick McClean for their first away game of the season, a trip to bottom side Bray at the Carlisle Grounds. Sligo boss Ger Lyttle is looking forward to an away game after losing three out of four at the Showgrounds. “We need the change of scenery the way games have transpired,” said Lyttle.
All games kick off at 7.45pm.
Meanwhile, Ireland international Savannah McCarthy enjoyed a debut to remember as Cork City beat Galway 2-0 at Eamon Deacy Park on the opening day of the Continental Tyres Women’s National League.
McCarthy, a former Galway player, put the cup holders ahead before Saoirse Noonan’s penalty secured victory.
Limerick FC beat Kilkenny 4-0 at the Markets Field with two goals from Lauren Keane and one each from Sylvia Gee and Megan Kelleher.
The games between champions Wexford Youths WFC and Shelbourne Ladies at Ferrycarrig Park and Peamount United and UCD Waves at Grenogue were postponed yesterday due to unplayable pitches.