If things had worked out a little differently, Cork City defender Ryan Delaney could have been preparing for a trip to Old Trafford to face Manchester United next month.
Instead, the Wexford man will be hoping to close on a league and cup double with City over the coming weeks.
The Leesiders are runaway leaders of the SSE Airtricity League, and they will look to take their place in the FAI Cup quarter-finals by beating First Division Athlone Town tonight.
Delaney is on loan at Turner’s Cross from Burton Albion until the end of the season, after which he will return to the English Championship.
Burton upset Harry Redknapp’s Birmingham 2-1 in the Championship last weekend to give them their first league win of the season, and they followed it up by upsetting Championship leaders Cardiff 2-1 in the Carabao Cup, to set up their dream trip to Manchester to face Jose Mourinho’s men.
“I do keep an eye on Burton, they’ve been doing quite well recently,” says Delaney.
“The main thing for me is to keep improving and when I get back over it’s time to push on, and hopefully get a chance. The manager (Nigel Clough) has been in contact with John Caulfield and my agent (former Ireland international Stephen Hunt) and just keeping an eye.”
For now, Cork City is all that matters to Delaney, though.
“The cup is big for this club, we’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing in the league: Winning games and doing the business.”
An Athlone win would be the upset of the season. The club have been dogged by a match-fixing investigation surrounding the club, and are rooted to the bottom of the First Division after a season to forget. The latest humiliation came last Friday as they lost 7-1 to Longford Town.
Even with the ever-resourceful Roddy Collins on board as head coach, it’s hard to rescue positives from this season. But that’s still not reason enough for City boss John Caulfield to take them lightly. It’s not just his own association with the club that has Caulfield wary — he began his League of Ireland career there more than 30 years ago — but he also knows the Athlone squad has enough talent on board to make life difficult tonight.
“They got beaten 7-1 last Friday by Longford but they’d no Enda Curran, no Niall Scullion, no Stephen Walsh, no Cormac Raftery, no David Brooks. So that’s five first teamers that weren’t there on Saturday night,” said Caulfield.
“They are all players who played in the Premier Division with Galway, some have played with Derry. They’d half a team out, we have to assume on Friday they’ll come with their strongest team.”
In truth, though, City could hardly have picked better opposition to break their mini-scoring drought at Turner’s Cross, where they have failed to find the next in their last two home games.
“We haven’t scored in our last two home games and haven’t won them, and we want to go back to performing the way we were,” said Caulfield.
City did get back to winning ways away from home with a 1-0 victory at Finn Harps on Monday, coming just three days after their disappointing 1-0 home loss to Sligo Rovers.
“You take the applause and the credit when you do well, and when you don’t perform, you have to stand up and be counted, and to be fair to the players they did,” said Caulfield.
“Some of them got sidetracked and this can happen but if you don’t perform and you let yourself down you can’t blame anyone else, you’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror. You take the good with the bad.
“Of course the fans are anxious, why wouldn’t you be? We know how scarce trophies come. From that point of view, we’re all anxious, because the fans can feel we’re getting close but as a team and as a management, we were sidetracked, we didn’t perform.
“I’m sure from now on, we will.
“Everyone put their hand up and said we would try and rectify it Monday night, which we did. The lads have been phenomenal all year and they bounced back, as I knew they would. We just have to keep our focus now and keep going.
“There is something special about the cup as we know from the last two years. Where would you want to be on the last day of the season but the Aviva? We had disappointment two years ago and the elation of last year, and this is a chance to get to the quarter-finals.”
On the injury front, Greg Bolger is a doubt, while it is hoped that Robbie Williams, Alan Bennett, Stephen Dooley, and Achille Campion will all be available, with Bolger and Willaims to be assessed ahead of kick-off. Johnny Dunleavy and Alec Byrne remain long-term absentees.
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