Ahead of today’s curtain-raising President’s Cup against Dundalk (Turner’s Cross 5.30pm), Cork City boss John Caulfield tellswhy he’s excited but also worried about the season ahead
This time five years ago, John Caulfield was entering the unknown. Newly appointed as Cork City’s manager, he knew the club and the league inside out as a player and a fan but, coming from a background of management in the Munster Senior League, the step up into Irish football’s top flight was a daunting one.
As he recalls it now, he genuinely didn’t know what to expect.
“Before that first league game, against Pat’s, was the most nervous I’ve ever been,” he reflects. “They were coming down as champions, we were the new kids on the block, and even though I’d managed non-league, I had no idea what the real top level was going to be like. Were Pat’s going to come down and whip us 4-0? In the end, we drew 1-1, after Garry Buckley had given us the lead. Johnny (Dunleavy) got sent off for a second yellow and for the last 15 minutes we dug in. The crowd was five and half thousand and it was just a magic night. And the feeling I had after was: we’ll be alright, we’ll do ok.”
Rather more than ok, as we now know. As Cork City gear up for another meeting with St Patrick’s Athletic to kick off the new campaign next Friday, the club and the manager can look back on a period of sustained and even unprecedented achievement, during which City have done the double and won another FAI Cup, played in Europe every year, and never finished worse than second in the league.
But with success always comes the pressure for a repeat performance and, by their own high standards, they fell short last year, surrendering both their title and their FAI Cup to Dundalk, the other side of the rivalry which has defined Irish club football for the last few years.
“Last year was a tough year,” Caulfield concedes. “If we’d won the cup — three in a row — it would probably have put a different taint on it. We were neck and neck in the league for a long time, went to the cup final again. The year before it went for us; last year it didn’t.”
As the then reigning champions and cup holders, City had gone into last season as the hunted not the hunter but Caulfield insists that loss of appetite was never an issue.
“Even though we’d lost (Sean) Maguire and (Kevin) O’Connor and struggled to get over the line in the league in 2017, I actually think that doing the double gave the boys the confidence they could do it without them,” he reflects. “People might wonder was the team last year as hungry as the year before, but when you look back at it, we were top of the table after 22 games.”
Caulfield reckons it was City’s European misadventures, in particular the aggregate 5-0 Europa League defeat to Rosenborg, which proved their undoing in the Premier Division as, following the second leg in Norway, City proceeded to drop points at home against Pat’s before losing successively to Sligo Rovers, Bohemians, and Dundalk.
“I think the Rosenborg game did savage damage to us, psychologically,” he says. “In the media it was assumed that we were as good as Rosenborg and coming out of that game our league form went to pot and that ultimately cost us. But in the cup, I thought we bounced back, particularly in the semi-final against Bohs. We probably got out of jail with the late penalty in Dalymount but then I thought we beat them off the park in the replay at Turner’s Cross. I actually thought we played very well in the final (which Dundalk won 2-1), probably better than in the previous two that we’d won.”
But that was then and this is now. Swapping the role of hunted for hunter isn’t the only change at City: a reduced budget and a big changeover in personnel means there is a detectable uncertainty and even a nervousness in the air on Leeside about what the new season might bring.
“My job is to prepare to the team as best I can and I’m always optimistic, you always have a chance,” says Caulfield. “But you look at Dundalk who are the double winners: they have kept all their players and brought new ones in on top of that. From the outside, people might look at it as a transitional year for us. For me, in the middle, I see it as a massive challenge. Could we win the league this year? Should we be in the top four? Everything this year is in the melting pot compared to before. It’s exciting because a lot of our players are young and new. And it’s worrying because you think: might we be far off the pace this year?
“We will have a quite a young team but a number of the players who’ve come in are quite talented. We have experienced guys like Buckley and (Gearoid) Morrissey but they’re still young. (Sean) McLoughlin and Conor McCarthy are young. We’ve also got experienced old heads like Benno (club captain Alan Bennett) who can’t play a full season but will play a number of matches and has a big role to play behind the scenes. He’s a big influence around the dressing room and has that presence that Colin Healy would have had as well.”
The integration of the younger, less experienced players has required a different approach from Caulfield and his coaching staff.
“You have to be a lot more patient,” he says. “You have to accept that they might make a mistake and maybe make the same one a week later but you can’t be aggressive, you just have to manage them differently. We have to encourage them. They’ll hit two great passes and they’re van Dijk. But the next ball, they hit a shit one. That’s bound to happen with young players. So we have to encourage them, work on their concentration and consistency. And I’ve said it about the supporters too. They’re going to have to encourage the kids. If they go out and give everything they have but lose the game, I would hope that people would recognise that they’ve given everything. There needs to be that galvanising effect. Because we’ve done so well, expectations in the city and county are huge, and of course, you have to allow for that. But, as I keep saying, it’s a different challenge this year.”
Going into the final year of his current contract as manager, Caulfield understands that he will be the one in the firing line should things not go well.
“I’m very practical about it, I’ve seen it all,” he says. “There’s always been abuse — even the year we won the double (laughs). Do I manage it better now? I do. There’s a handful of people out there and for them, everything is wrong. It used to affect me much more. But I’m nearly oblivious to it now. You nearly have to be. But the majority of people in the city and county are genuine, passionate sports people and give phenomenal support.
“Somebody asked me recently how do I relax. Relax? Once the season starts, there’ll be no relaxation — ever — for eight months. Eight months, day after day, game after game: the first time you get to relax is the middle of November, the season’s over and you’ve signed a few players; then you might say, right, I can step back — because there’s no match next week.”
Is it really worth it?
“(Laughs). It’s that drug of winning, even those times when you’re pissed off that the team mightn’t have done this or that. But when you lose…you’re speechless. When you lose, you probably need to be a single person. I don’t mean that you don’t move on, you do, but at the same time, I think it’s impossible not to be affected by it. But after 30 years on the road and five years full time in football — as mad and as nuts as it is — there’s nothing better than getting up in the morning and putting on a tracksuit and going into work.”
Before the league kicks off next Friday, there’s the now traditional curtain-raiser and familiar spectacle of the ‘New Firm’ contesting another President’s Cup, at Turner’s Cross today. Of course, one big difference is in the visiting dugout where Stephen Kenny will be conspicuous by his absence, the architect of the new Dundalk having taken over the Irish U21s while doubling as, all going according to plan, manager in waiting to Mick McCarthy. As it happens, Caulfield is of the view that his great managerial rival should already be running the senior show.
“I think he should have got the job straight away,” he says. “I understand people talking about the value of bedding in with the U21s but I’m still unsure about that as a stepping stone because there are so few games.
“The biggest challenge for Stephen will be going from day-to-day preparation to weeks and months of build-up and between games. Maybe giving him the senior job would have been throwing him in at the deep end but he’s had a lot of experience, in the league here, in Scotland, in Europe.”
On the domestic front, the more pressing question for Dundalk, their new management team and, indeed, the rest of the League is whether, in the post-Kenny era, the transition can be a seamless one at Oriel Park.
“Well, look, he was the major influence in the club and on the group,” Caulfield observes, “but at the same time, when you look at the players, there’s massive experience and quality there and a lot of the players are at brilliant ages. To me, there’s no reason why Dundalk aren’t the team to beat again this season. It’s a smooth machine. OK, there’s a key man gone, I accept that, but they have the players and they’ve made a smart move in bringing in John Gill to give a hand. He’s got good man-management skills.
“The key for the rest will be in a team getting close to them and keeping the pressure on. That will be the challenge. If they open a big gap, even if they have a few hiccups, it won’t really matter unless there are others close enough to them to take advantage.
“Rovers have the support, the stadium, a good team, they’ve bought well. Can they make a sustained challenge?”
More to the point, can Cork City?
“If we start the season well and get a bit of momentum going, anything could happen,” he says. “We have young players who are well able to play. And a well-organised, well-drilled team. But you’d be naïve to think that where we’ve been at with the quality of players we’ve had, that, all of a sudden, a lot of new players can reach that level. We have the bit of experience, we have the young fellows in, it’s about how it all blends.”
The conversation finishes where it began.
“I think the biggest achievement in my time here was the first year, starting from scratch and finishing runners-up,” says Caulfield.
“And if we’re up there competing at the end of the season this year, I do think that would be an incredible achievement too.”