Given that he is synonymous with the history of Cork City Football Club, it must be quite the double-whammy for the uninitiated to learn that the club’s new manager John Caulfield was (a) born some 3,000 miles from the banks of the Lee and (b) actually made his League of Ireland debut in the colours of Athlone Town.
The man who would go on to become a Cork City Hall of Famer, holding the club records for all-time appearances and all-time joint top league goalscorer, actually first saw the light of day in New York in 1964, his parents — mother from north Cork, father from Mayo — having met in the States after emigrating from Ireland.
Caulfield has no real memories of the country of his birth, however, the family coming back to settle in Roscommon when he was just two years old. Although his new home was a gaelic football stronghold, Caulfield was bitten by the soccer bug at a young age, his imagination fired by television coverage of games like the 1971 FA Cup final when a memorable Charlie George strike gave Arsenal a 2-1 victory over Liverpool at Wembley.
John’s father would also bring him to see matches in Athlone, which was how, at the age of 11, he found himself in a thronged St Mels Park on that momentous afternoon in 1975 when Athlone Town held AC Milan scoreless in the Uefa Cup, John Minnock fluffing a penalty that would have given the Midlanders an even more famous result, as a certain Giovanni Trapattoni — then part of the Italians’ coaching staff — looked on.
Although Caulfield played gaelic football too, it was his growing devotion to soccer which was the main factor in his decision to attend boarding school in Summerhill College where the game featured high on the sporting curriculum and there was the added bonus of being able to attend Sligo Rovers matches.
“This was around 1977/78 and I was at every game,” he recalls. “Technically, I was still an Athlone supporter but Sligo were my love. There was such a passion for soccer in the town.”
After doing his Leaving Cert, he attended the Regional College in Athlone, his own football career progressing when he joined the Town as a 19-year-old and, playing as sweeper, helped the reserve team win the old ‘B’ division title. It was also with Athlone that he made what he calls his “three-minute” League of Ireland debut, coming off the bench for the senior team in a game against Home Farm.
“In hindsight, it almost spoils things,” he chuckles, “because it seems all my life I was with Cork City.”
With intentions of making a career for himself in marketing, an ANCO sales course finally brought him permanently to Leeside in 1985. He continued his football career with local side Wembley and a year later joined the club with which he would make his name. But, senior football having only returned to Cork in 1984, City were still experiencing plenty of teething problems in John’s early days at Turner’s Cross.
“The standard was so high in the League of Ireland — with Rovers going for the four in a row — and initially we were out of our depth, just young fellas of 19/20 coming out of the Senior League,” he recalls. “But within a couple of years we got educated, we got to learn to pace the game and we became a good, tough team. (Dave) Barry, (Patsy) Freyne, Declan (Daly) (Pat), Morley, we all came together.”
Caulfield had arrived at City as a defender but, in difficult circumstances, discovered his shooting boots in a pivotal game against none other than his old favourites Sligo Rovers, the resultant victory bringing to an end a staggering 19-month wait for a home win.
“It was weird how it happened,” he recalls. “This was City’s third year and we’d lost five matches in a row and the word was that if we lost our next match the club would be gone out of football. The crowds were down and there was no money. I don’t know how it happened — whether it was injuries or what — but I played right side of midfield that day. We were two down after 14 minutes, we looked dead and buried, and then I got a hat-trick in the second half and we beat them 3-2. The next week we won and we got ourselves out of it.”
Despite that famous hat-trick, it wasn’t until the following ‘87/88 season that Caulfield moved upfront for good. And the rest is now the stuff of club history: a record number of appearances (455), the joint record, with Pat Morley, for league goals (129), the play-off title win in 1993, FAI Cup success in 1998 and, shining out from a series of European adventures, the famous Bayern Munich Uefa Cup games of 1991.
“You talk about great results in Europe,” says Caulfield. “It was a 1-1 game at Musgrave Park and the fact that they could have won 10-1 is beside the point (laughs). On the day we actually played very well in the first half. Then obviously the ball broke and Dave got a great goal. (Stefan) Effenberg got an equaliser before half-time and they battered us in the second half but we were a dogged team at the time.
“And going away then to play in the Olympic Stadium, a bit like lambs to the slaughter, but we caught them at a time when there was low confidence in their team. We were 0-0 at half time and then maybe stupidly in the second half we thought we could get a result and we went for it. I remember we had a free just outside the box. One of the lads rolled it to Dave, Dave struck it like Dave can, it came back and the deflection squirmed through (Paul) Bannon’s legs about six yards from the goal. If it had hit any part of his body it would have trickled in. All of a sudden, we’re thinking, ‘we have a chance here’. And within about six or seven minutes we were caught upfield and — bang, bang — game over. But, look, I got to play 22 times in Europe with Cork City — where are you going to get that?”
When Caulfield reflects on his achievements as a player with the club, his modesty can’t disguise a philosophy of football which he now hopes to bring to the role of managing the team.
“The way I look at it, I have to say I was desperately lucky, like. I had a few injuries but nothing major. I wasn’t the greatest player but I worked hard. And, to me, attitude is everything. I feel that I was fortunate to be with very, very good players and I did everything I could then to contribute to that. And if you get a guy with the right attitude and he blends in well with a couple of seriously talented guys around him, he can achieve a lot.”
Coaching was a natural progression for Caulfield. “There was never a doubt in my head that I would go into it,” he says. But even before he moved into the dug-out with first Avondale and then UCC, he freely admits his long-term dream had always been to take the helm at his old club.
“Being straight with you, even back when I was playing I wanted to get into coaching so that I would one day manage Cork City,” he says. “When it all went full-time I suppose, to be honest, I thought it wasn’t going to happen for me, not where I was coming from with my family and a job and a house and a mortgage. So when it came up this time, I just felt it was now or never and that, if I didn’t go for it, I would regret it.”
Still, giving up the relative security of a job with Diageo for the unpredictability of a full-time immersion in the often precarious world of League of Ireland football — and at a time when the country is still struggling to escape the age of austerity — the father of two understands why some people might think he needs his head examined
“When you put it the way you put it, it doesn’t make sense,” he agrees. “But the way I feel about it is that, for the previous 10 or 12 years, my kids were growing up and, while I’m still providing for them, they’re getting to the stage now where they’re finishing school. When it came up in the paper that City were looking for a manager, I would accept that at home, yes, there was a huge amount of concern. But my daughters were saying, ‘Dad, you have to go for it, this is what you wanted’. They know I am consumed by football.
“I don’t know how long I’ll get, I know it’s results-driven but I’m still hoping that I’ll get more than two years. But I also know it’s the one job where you’re probably going to get the sack at some point. Or else you hope you get to a stage, like at Avondale or UCC, where you can say, ‘Okay, I’ve done my time, I’m going to move on’.”
He also accepts that, within football, there will be those wondering if, as a first-time League of Ireland manager, he is really ready for the step up.
“I can see the way people are viewing it,” he says, “even some other managers. ‘This guy doesn’t realise the level’. I can see that. Personally, I think I’ve been close to the action ever since I’ve played — I go to matches all the time — and so, on that side of it, I’m not doubting myself. I had success at Avondale and UCC and I learned a lot about man-management and dealing with people.
“Also, if I had been an amateur player, that would have been one thing, but I was a League of Ireland player for 16 years and, no matter what way you look at it, while the current quality of the players in the league is very good, the likes of Dave Barry, Patsy Freyne, Declan Daly, Ollie Cahill — they’d all play today.
“Sure the circumstances have changed but in terms of ability it’s not like I’m coming into a level that is miles better than when I was there. But the most important thing for me now is I think the guys I’ve signed and the people I’ve retained trust me. I think they can sense that I have an idea of what I’m doing.”
The proof will be in the pudding, of course, beginning with the SSE Airtricity League kick-off on Friday March 7 when Cork City, celebrating their 30th year in football, host St Patrick’s Athletic at Turner’s Cross.
“I’ve no illusion about the challenge,” says Caulfield. “I know if the results are no good, the crowd won’t be there. And then I won’t be there.
“One thing a lot of people have said to me is that’s it’s a risk because of who you are, because of how popular you were at the club. I just have to dismiss that. The one thing, I suppose, is it does guarantee that people will know I’m genuine in what I’m trying to do.
“And what I trying to do is get a team that really wants to play for us, and if I can nurture them in that way then we’ll have a chance. If a team comes to Turner’s Cross or we play them away and they’re better than us then, fine, we’ll shake their hands. But what we can’t allow is that we’re not prepared to the best of our ability. And I’ll be doing everything in my power to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
And that’s John Caulfield for you. To appropriate a phrase from Munster rugby: American by birth, Cork City by the grace of God.
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