Meet the New Firm. Same as the Old Firm. Except different.
To the casual observer, the sight of Cork City and Dundalk meeting yet again in a top-of-the-table clash might suggest that nothing much has changed in the Premier Division of the League of Ireland this season.
City boss John Caulfield sees it differently, however, arguing that a widening spread of contenders means tonight’s match at Turner’s Cross is unlikely to come to be regarded as a defining game in another two-horse race for the title.
“I wouldn’t think so,” he says. “We’re both level on points now, but there are two-thirds of the season to go. Derry are right in it, Waterford and Rovers are still there. From that point of view, the winner tonight won’t have won the league by any means.”
He also points out that, while the managers might remain the same, the teams continue to evolve.
“We’ve new personnel, they have some and, obviously, they have changed their style slightly, with Patrick Hoban coming in. He’s a big, strong striker, very good at holding the ball up and good in the air.
"At the same time, they know a lot about us and we know a lot about them, but what happens on a day like this, it can come down to someone losing their concentration, someone making a mistake.
“The big thing for us is that we’re at home and we’ve put a good run together. We’re after having three consecutive clean sheets, three wins since the Waterford game and we want to try to carry that confidence into tonight’s game in front of our own fans.”
The rivalry between City and Dundalk has spilled over into the occasional feisty war of words between players and managers in the past, but Caulfield plays down suggestions of bad blood between himself and Lilywhites boss Stephen Kenny.
“In this league, it’s seldom that there’s much interaction between any managers, really,” he observes. “Particularly, I suppose, because a lot of clubs don’t have manager’s offices in the ground. It’s not like England where they all have a drink after, a glass of wine or whatever!
A Pat Hoban strike gave Dundalk a 1-0 victory at Oriel Park seven weeks ago, and manager Kenny is confident that his side’s run of good form can now yield a first victory at Turner’s Cross since two Richie Towell goals delivered a 2-1 win there in April 2015. Not that he’s expecting anything other than a tight game this evening.
“They haven’t conceded at home and we haven’t conceded away, so something has to give,” he says. “We haven’t won there in a while, but the players are playing terrifically well and we’re on a good run and we want to keep that going.
“Turner’s Cross is worth a lot to Cork, with 6,000 there. The crowd are on top of the pitch and it’s a four-sided ground. We’re very confident, though, because we’ve dominated a lot of the games that we’ve played this season and played very well, overall.
“We won the league for three years in a row then they reversed the situation last year. I think it’s pretty even between us at the moment, with only goal difference separating us, but if we could win at Turner’s Cross, it would be a good win.”
In team news, Cork City have everyone bar Johnny Dunleavy available, while, for the visitors, Lithuanian midfielder Karolis Chevedukas misses out with an ankle problem.
Better news for Kenny is that centre-back Brian Gartland is back in the squad — having yet to feature in the league so far this season — while Michael Duffy has recovered from a knock sustained in the 2-2 draw with his hometown club Derry City last Friday and Krisztián Adorján returns from a lay-off due to concussion.
A sell-out crowd is expected at the Cross this evening, with City anxious to remind those attending that, in order to facilitate live television coverage of the game on RTÉ 2, the match will kick off at the earlier time of 7.15pm.
Elsewhere in the Premier Division tonight, there is no reduction in the heat on Shamrock Rovers and manager Steven Bradley, as they travel to the Brandywell to take on in-form Derry City, while St Patrick’s Athletic host Bohemians in a Dublin derby, Waterford are at home to Sligo Rovers and the bottom two go head to head, as Bray Wanderers welcome Limerick to the Carlisle Grounds.
Meanwhile, in the First Division, it’s Drogheda United v Shelbourne, Galway United v Cobh Ramblers and UCD v Wexford.
With the exception of the Cork-Dundalk game, tonight’s SSE Airtricity League matches kick off at 7.45pm.
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