Some people are on the piss, they think it’s all over...
I suppose you couldn’t really blame some Cork City supporters if they are already dusting down the ‘we are the champions’ chants. Last Friday night, after City’s 2-1 victory over Bray Wanderers and Dundalk’s shock 2-1 loss to Galway combined to open up a 12-point lead at the top of the League of Ireland table, the Shed End was roaring ‘we shall not be moved’ which, taken literally, conveys the certain belief that the title is already as good as in the bag.
And it’s not just the fans who seem to think that’s the case.
After seeing his second-placed side come off second-best at Turner’s Cross, Bray manager Harry Kenny declared the league was now Cork’s to lose.
Earlier this week in Dublin, Roy Keane said it was theirs to win.
With only a third of the season gone, the debate already seems to be mainly about not if, but when and how, City will claim their first title since 2005. Boasting a remarkable 100% record ahead of their 12th game of the campaign, at home to Finn Harps tomorrow night, Cork’s apparent invincibility is such that they are fast closing in on the all-time record for a winning streak right out of the traps in the whole of League of Ireland history, a 15-game run by Bohemians way back in the sepia-tinted year of 1923.
The only place you won’t find League of Ireland people preoccupied with records and history-making is, it seems, inside the Cork City camp itself.
When I raised the Bohs precedent with Johnny Dunleavy after the win against Bray in which he’d claimed the decisive goal, the club captain arched his eyebrows until they were almost at ceiling level and insisted it was the first he’d ever heard of it.
“There’s never any talk in our dressing room of records,” he said. “It’s all about our performances week to week. If records follow our performances, well and good. But first and foremost, it’s about the three points every Friday.”
Of course, that’s the kind of approved mantra you’d expect from any self-respecting pro, even if, in the case of Dunleavy — who has had to contend with more than his fair share of cruel and unusual injury punishment — there is bound to be an especially keen and entirely understandable refusal to take anything at all in the game of football for granted.
For his part, manager John Caulfield likes to point out that there is “a long, long way to go” in the league and, of course, he’s absolutely right: 22 games , in fact, which is more than enough time for whole empires to rise and fall in football. European commitments, injuries, fatigue, loss of form, contentious refereeing decisions, sheer bad luck, the fortunes, for good or ill, of others — all could and probably will play some part before the season is out.
And, for Cork, there are certain specific imponderables which have to be factored into any assessment of how they might kick on from this position of undoubted strength, not the least of which is whether they will be able to hold onto Sean Maguire, the league’s most complete striker but also its most wanted man, for the rest of the campaign.
Were he to go this summer, it would represent a significant blow to the club, no question, but even if that worst case scenario comes to pass, there would be considerable consolation on Leeside in the knowledge that this City side can’t possibly be regarded as just a one-man band. This season Karl Sheppard and Garry Buckley have been chipping in with the goals. Although he can blow cold as well as hot, Stephen Dooley, in his pomp, is almost unplayable on the wing. At the back, Alan Bennett and Ryan Delaney, in front of Mark McNulty, are at the heart of the meanest defence in the league. And it’s a testament to the strength in depth of the squad as a whole, that City have been able to sustain the departure on the eve of the season of Kenny Browne and, subsequently, the loss at various times of key men through injury, without any obviously disruptive effect.
Caulfield also deserves much credit for his shrewdness in the market before a ball was even kicked. It seems almost amusing now to recall that there were some bemoaning the absence of a marquee signing over the winter at Turner’s Cross when, week in and week out, we can see Conor McCormack staking a claim to be regarded as the league’s most valuable player, a veritable Rebel N’Golo Kante who is here, there, and everywhere in the service of his team.
And overarching all the individual components has been a collective will to win by whatever means necessary.
From that first night in atrocious conditions up in Ballybofey, Cork City have found a way to prevail, whether with swagger, stealth or in adversity. They’ve done it via slow starts and strong finishes but they’ve also done it the other way ‘round. And the frequency with which they have scored late goals speaks volumes not just for the players’ desire but also for their fitness levels.
So, yes, the league is City’s to win and lose. A 12-point gap allows for no other logical interpretation. But since when has logic ever been unassailable in football? If anyone wants a relevant warning from history, then simply call to mind the abject sight of poor old Kevin Keegan imploding on live television as Alex Ferguson messed with his head and Manchester United overhauled Newcastle United en route to the Premier League title in 1996.
And only in February of that year, you might remember, Newcastle had been 12 points clear.
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