Ask skipper Conor McCarthy if he can bring himself to sum up Cork City’s season of discontent and he doesn’t mince his words.
“I’m not going to lie to you — it’s been a disaster,” he says. “On the pitch, off the pitch. It’s not easy talking about it but, from where we’ve been to where we are at the minute, at a club like Cork City, it shouldn’t be happening.”
As a Cork native, who came to Turner’s Cross from Blarney United, and graduated to the senior team from the U19s in 2016, McCarthy’s emotional attachment to the club has made this season’s fall from grace all the more painful to endure.
“Definitely. I used to go to Turner’s Cross when I was a young fella, watching the likes of Roy O’Donovan and George O’Callaghan. Then I came to the club when I was 16 and to go on and become club captain now is hard to believe. To play in front of my family and friends and the people of Cork every week, there’s a real emotional connection. It’s your hometown club and you want to do your county proud.”
To be fair to McCarthy, he has certainly done that though, as a centre-half, he admits that finding himself as the side’s current leading marksman is something of a dubious honour.
“Yeah, I’m the top scorer,” he confirms with a rueful smile. “Four in the league and six overall. It’s always nice to chip in with a few goals but, as far as top scorer is concerned, it’s not something to be proud of from a team perspective.”
Last Friday’s scoreless draw at home to fellow strugglers Finn Harps was another night when, though they bossed possession, City’s play in the final third repeatedly let them down, passes and crosses lacking precision and penetration and their shyness in front of goal even extending to Conor McCormack seeing his penalty saved by Mark McGinley.
“I think it’s a confidence thing,” suggests McCarthy. “When you’re winning, like we were last year, you do things almost without thinking. When results haven’t been going your way, you’re kind of second-guessing yourself. Like, you’d take the safe option instead of trying that riskier pass that might get the crowd off their seats. And for the forwards it’s always a confidence thing, any striker will tell you that, although the forwards are only as good as the service they’re getting. When you’re not scoring you’re over-thinking and ultimately not scoring.”
After the seismic upheaval of John Caulfield’s departure and confirmation that a glorious era at the club was over when his former assistant and caretaker successor John Cotter followed him out the door, City turned to another old boy, Neale Fenn, in a bid to provide a late-season boost.
But while the new manager might still be looking for his first win after four games, McCarthy is convinced that, over the longer-term, the former Longford Town manager is definitely the man to turn things around at Turner’s Cross.
“Going into next season, I do think he has the tools to restore that confidence,” he says. “He’s only been here three weeks and he’ll have a full pre-season to put his stamp on it. It will be a rebuilding phase. Like any club and any season, there’ll be big turnover in players.”
McCarthy, 21, is one of those whose contract is up at the end of the season, at which point he will have a decision to make about his own future.
“I’ll talk to my parents, talk to my agent, talk to Neale Fenn to see if he wants to keep me and then see what the best move is for me,” he says. “Whether that’s with Cork City or somewhere else, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
For now, McCarthy’s focus is purely on helping the team secure enough points to ensure City retain their Premier Division status, beginning with an away date in the Brandywell against Derry City tomorrow night.
“We’ve five games to go, Finn Harps have four and there’s seven between us, so by no means are we taking it for granted we’re safe in the Premier Division,” he says. “It’s even gut-wrenching to say that, but we just have to grind out results now for the next five games. You can play as much pretty football as you want, but this is the business end of the season and we need to start performing. People talk about the playing style, but if you have 90% possession and you lose the game, what good is that to you?
“It’s all about results now. We just want to get safe and put this season to bed as quickly as possible.”