Being booed by his own fans tainted the 2017 League of Ireland title win for Karl Sheppard, admits the former Cork City star.
In the weeks before City clinched that Premier Division crown, Sheppard had been linked with a move to rivals Dundalk, causing some fans to turn on him.
“For me it was quite tainted,” Sheppard said, speaking with former teammate Graham Cummins on the Irish Examiner A Footballer’s Life podcast.
“A couple of the Cork fans were booing me, so the last game of the season before we were lifting the trophy, I didn’t want to go up and lift it.
“I think the Ophelia storm was there and I lifted it over where the empty stand was because I didn’t want anyone booing me. I stayed towards the back.
“Once I got into the dressing room I was celebrating with all my teammates. It was a big moment for the team. You had lads who were hunting down Dundalk like dogs, literally tried everything to get over the line and when we did, I didn’t want there to be a headline of Cork fans booing as they lift the title.”
Cork were then set to face Dundalk in the FAI Cup final with the double on the line. But in the week of the game it was reported in the media that Sheppard had agreed to sign with Stephen Kenny at Oriel Park.
Sheppard had agreed a deal but says that leak, combined with a speech by City manager John Caulfield in the days before the game, sparked a change of heart.
“The news broke on the Tuesday. We met up on the Thursday or Friday as a team and John sat everyone down and said ‘I want to address the elephant in the room’.
“He said 'Karl Sheppard is leaving us, people are asking me not to play him but there’s no way'. He said ‘I know Shep, he’s going to put everything into this game’.
“To hear John talking like that… The other manager had sort of thrown me under the bus here and gave me his word this wouldn’t happen and then it came out. He may not have directly said it but it was enough for me to say this is not right, I can’t sign for Dundalk now.
“I have a man in John who is single-handedly standing up for me in front of the team when it would have been easy to go ‘you’re not playing’.
“It was a very stressful time and before the game I had gone in my head, ‘I’m sticking with Cork’.”
City won the final in a penalty shootout, with Sheppard among the scorers.
“I was so happy I scored a peno in the shootout. I’ve never been more confident taking a peno considering I’ve a brutal record on them. I suppose it was very nice to be able to repay John for saying that in front of that lads, that I trust him.”
Sheppard says Caulfield was the chief driver in his decision to leave Shamrock Rovers for Cork City in 2015.
“When I met John, he’s so enthusiastic and driven and determined. And once you get talking to someone like that you’re like, ‘Jesus, this is the type of man I want to play for’.
“I was like, get me down to Cork. I want to play for this man. It was a decision I look back on and say, ‘thank God I did that’.
“Even the little things. We played Dundalk in the 2015 Cup final. He lost that cup final in extra-time to a last-minute Richie Towell winner. He went in and congratulated all the Dundalk players, into their dressing room and gave them a speech.
“These are little things that people forget quickly, that I've not seen another manager do to us after a cup final. I suppose it was a mark of the man.”
Sheppard was still at Turner's Cross when Caulfield left the club in 2019, having failed to recapture the form of that title-winning campaign.
“I was completely gutted for him. All the memories I had with him.
“He demands so much at times, He’ll give out to you if you’re out at a shopping centre the day before a game, he demands so much. Everyone was so riled up at the time, and tensions were high. And it was easy to think this guy is wrecking my head.
“But I’ll happily text John now and say 'how are you getting on'. Deep down he is a really nice guy and he did everything for us.
“He was so used to winning that when it started to go wrong the pressure he put on us to perform, it just became an endless cycle of demanding, not performing, demanding, not performing.
“It probably took its toll on John as well and maybe he was thankful for the break. He’s at Galway now and knowing John he’ll probably get them promoted this year.”
Sheppard was forced to retire earlier this year, aged just 29, having struggled with arthritis in recent seasons. But he says he is not yet missing the game.
“No, I’m happy it’s over. Towards the end, my last two-three years I wasn’t enjoying it. I started to hate football, because of the way the body was. It was becoming a job. When I see the lads going in for preseason, I was thinking will I be missing it, but I’m just happy I’m not out running.”
“Liam Miller was unbelievable. In terms of his passing and how calm he was in training and on the ball. It was as if he floated around the pitch. He was just so elegant in how he played. He was a beautiful footballer in every sense. Nothing phased him.”
“Colin Healy was almost the complete opposite in that he was so intense. I’ve never seen anyone train as well as Colin. Two years ago John (Caulfield) asked him to come in and train when he was retired and he was probably the best trainer. I’ve never seen anyone fire a pass in the way he could and demand standards. It doesn't surprise me that he’s gone on to be a manager now because he always demanded so much from everyone in training.”
“He used to wear this Casio Watch and I've had so many imprints of that Casio watch on my head. He’d be absolutely wrestling with you for every ball in training. He was not only a gentleman but he was such a good player that he was playing until 36/37, to be playing at that age it’s remarkable.”
“I remember in my second session at Rovers. When you’re in a position, you’re eyeballing who you’re up against and looking at their strengths and weaknesses, going ‘will I be getting a game this year?’
“The first session I thought he hasn’t done much today. Second session I remember we were playing five a side and someone was crossing a ball in and I was marking him and he must have powered about two foot above me and bulleted in a header and I was ‘oh right, that’s why he scores so many goals’. In terms of finishing, I struggle to see anyone who finishes like him. He just caressed the ball into the corner, just sidefooted them in, he’d find the corner every time.”
“He was ridiculous. There were games when I was looking at him going, ‘this guy has gone to another level’. When he first came in he was in and out for a spell and I remember up in Galway I started in front of him. And since that he didn’t look back. He was able to do it all. He could spin in behind, he’d be outleaping big defenders. He’d be taking it in, holding defenders off, getting in the box. He had it all and for a 12-15 month spell he was unplayable.”