Cork City manager John Caulfield explains why it was imperative he was back at work within just 48 hours of the club’s FAI Cup triumph.
After the dust settles and the noise dies down, off-season for a League of Ireland manager is often the most stressful, frustrating, and uncertain of times.
After the highs of the FAI Cup final win at the Aviva Stadium on November 8, it was back to my desk at Bishopstown two days later, planning for the new season.
Once one season has closed it is imperative to get your house in order for the next one.
Most players are in limbo during the off-season, as they have to come to terms with the unfortunate reality of unemployment. A three-month hit.
The first task as a manager is to inform those players who will not be renewing contracts with the club.
There is no easy way to do this even though most probably already know in their hearts that their time with the club has come to an end.
It is one of the most difficult aspects of management.
Top League of Ireland clubs carry squads of between 20-26 players, and a weekly wage is paid over 40 to 42 weeks.
At CCFC we put an emphasis on promoting players from our catchment area and underage teams, but additional players of quality and experience have to be added if you want to challenge for honours.
Geographically, most of our players are from Cork and the south-east (Waterford, Kilkenny, and Wexford) but we have always been prepared to cast the net wider.
A case in point: Our captain, Johnny Dunleavy is from Donegal and while we all want to adopt him as a Corkman, his accent gives him away.
Incidentally, positive news on Johnny is that, after his long injury lay-off, all the indications are that he will be ready to resume pre-season training with us in January.
Having him available again — John Kavanagh is another — will be like having a new signing.
At this time of the year, it’s all about building a squad, not just a team, so that you have options and reliable cover in all positions.
Over the three seasons I’ve been manager, we’ve been unfortunate in suffering a number of injuries to key players.
That’s the reason why, for example, we had a right-winger playing at full-back for the league and cup run-in.
Now, Steven Beattie did a great job for us there but he could also have done a great job for us in his natural habitat further up the pitch.
The ideal scenario is that if X is out today then Y comes in and there’s really little or no difference.
So while next year we’ll have a smaller panel in terms of quantity, we’re hoping that the quality, right throughout the squad, will be higher.
Securing players and getting them tied down for the new season is the biggest headache for any manager. Each player looks for the best deal that they can get.
However, at CCFC we work within a tight budget. European success can bolster the bank account but the wages budget has to be strictly adhered to in order to ensure the long-term viability of the club.
When you cannot offer the highest wage packet, then you need to be able to compensate by offering players an attractive all-round package.
In Cork, we have fantastic tie-ups with UCC and the Mardyke Arena, and CIT, to develop our players through football and education. We also have the use of their top class indoor and outdoor training facilities.
But, without doubt, one of the factors which most attracts players to Cork City is our amazing support.
We are the best-supported club in the League of Ireland and players who come to us from other clubs are always bowled over by the passion.
Once you play for Cork City you become an adopted local.
You cannot walk the streets without being recognised. Cork people love their sport and, especially on nights when Turner’s Cross is rocking, the Rebel Army is a real 12th man for us.
Of course, there’s nothing quite like winning trophies to turn players into cult heroes here. With his decisive goal in the cup final, Sean Maguire is in the CCFC — and Irish football — history books for life.
Retaining Seanie was one of our key targets for next season and I think the fact that he previously had experience of going to England at a young age actually made it more likely that, despite there being so much interest in the league’s leading scorer, he would see the merit of staying with us for another campaign.
Financially, we can’t match what a club in England might offer but I think younger players increasingly recognise that if they do well with a top League of Ireland club it can only enhance their CV in the long term.
You only have to look at the current make-up of the Republic of Ireland squad to see what an important springboard our league can be.
If you were to look at a lot of the lads who go off at a young age to England, maybe as many as nine out of ten don’t end up with a future in the game.
Off the top of my head, I can think of loads of kids from Cork who went to England at around 16, but it didn’t work out for them and, disenchanted by the whole experience, they’re not even playing in the senior league here now.
But if Seanie can reproduce his phenomenal form of last season in 2017, then a big future in the game really opens up for him.
That’s what I would hope would happen for him — but not before, along with all our other players, he helps take Cork City to the next level.
That’s why I regard our FAI Cup win not as an end but as a beginning.
Winning three games in a row doesn’t make you the best manager the world, no more than losing a game or two makes you the worst.
But the reality is that, in football, success is measured in silverware, irrespective of what other progress you might be making on the back of the vast amount of work which goes into a team and a club over the course of a season.
The margins in the end can still be so fine: When you think about it, in the cup final we were just 40 seconds away from a penalty shoot-out which we could have lost.
But we won the game, we lifted the cup, and when the boys came back to Cork and witnessed the scenes of jubilation in the city, at that moment you just felt like you wanted the new season to begin the very next day.
That’s what I mean by the cup win being not the final chapter in one season, but the opening chapter in the next.
And that’s the feeling that I’ve been picking up in the close season from the players: They’re really rearing to go again.
Getting a taste of that euphoria last month should mean we’ll be even hungrier next season.
And the fact is that we’ll have to be if we’re going to do even better.
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