Any conversation with John Caulfield on the eve of the new Premier Division season cannot but cut to the chase — the title chase.
Three times runners-up to Dundalk in the SSE Airtricity League, Cork City go into the 2017 campaign looking to take that final and biggest step up.
And while there are plenty of people tipping them to do just that, the flipside of their consistent progress under Caulfield’s management is that anything short of a title triumph this year will probably be regarded by just as many, not least on Leeside, as failure.
For his part, Caulfield insists he doesn’t view the bigger picture in such simple black and white terms.
The stats may show Cork having picked up league silver three times on the trot, but, from the manager’s perspective, last year was the first time he really believed his team were in a position to go for gold.
His first season in charge, 2014, he regards as “a bit of a fairytale”, in which City “probably over-achieved” and, by the end of the second year, despite again finishing second and also reaching the cup final, he still felt that his side hadn’t “really closed the gap” on double-winning Dundalk.
So, following a significant close season overhaul in personnel and playing style — what he now terms “a big gamble” — last year was the first in which he felt that “realistically we were in control of our own destiny and were there or thereabouts all the way through.”
And, if City again fell short in the league, this time there was tangible vindication of the manager’s belief in the form of an FAI Cup win at the expense of their greatest rivals. Now the goal is, obviously, to win the title, but Caulfield insists that there will be other ways to measure success for Cork City this season.
“Is it about winning silverware?” he asks. “Of course it is. Do we want to win the league this year? Of course we do. Are we going out with that intention? Of course we are. But do I feel that we have to do it this year? I’ve a year to go on my contract and it will be up to the club to decide what they want.
“So is winning the league the be-all and end-all this time? No, it’s not. For me, it’s also about progressing in Europe and doing well in the cups.
“We’re doing everything we can to make the club better, which it is, and we expect this year that we’ll be better again. We aim to be challenging for all trophies and at the end of the year we’ll see where we are.”
Vital to those ambitions, he suggests, has been the retention of 10 of the 11 players who started in the 1-0 FAI Cup victory over Dundalk at the Aviva last November.
“You go back to the end of last season and everyone was saying that Seanie Maguire, Kevin O’Connor, and Stephen Dooley were gone,” Caulfield observes.
“And there were offers. Maguire was a phenomenal striker for us last year, scoring 30 goals, and he’s a guy I believe can really go to a high level. So it was crucial for us to keep those guys because winning the cup — particularly after the knock-back of losing to Dundalk in the league just a few weeks before — restored our confidence and gave us self-belief and momentum to take into the new season.”
On the downside, Caulfield makes no secret of the fact that the loss to Waterford of Kenny Browne is a significant blow, but it’s one he hopes will be softened by the arrival of Ryan Delaney on loan from Burton and Shane Griffin from Reading, while he also knows he can trust in the experience and commitment of Alan Bennett in the centre of defence when the veteran is ready to return to the fray.
The City boss took particular encouragement from the fact that a makeshift pairing of Delaney and another new signing, ex-Derry midfielder Conor McCormack, backed up by last season’s goalkeeper of the year Mark McNulty, kept a clean sheet in the President’s Cup final victory over Dundalk last week.
And he also warmly welcomes the return to action of club captain Johnny Dunleavy after a protracted spell on the sidelines, noting that the versatile Donegal man can also slot in at centre-back if required.
In the build-up to tonight’s Premier Division kick-off — which sees City travel to Finn Harps — the bulk of attention has understandably been focused on the renewal of the ‘New Firm’ rivalry of Cork and Dundalk, as well on how other perceived title contenders, like Shamrock Rovers and Derry City, might fare in attempting to prevent the Lilywhites from claiming four-in-a-row.
But Caulfield is also warily predicting that the relegation of three clubs — to facilitate a reversion to two divisions of 10 in 2018 — will have a significant impact at both ends of the table before the season is out.
“My fear about what will happen is that there will be a lot more negativity,” he says. “Before, if you were mid-table and at home to a top team, you could have a bit more of a carefree attitude and go out and have a cut off them.
“But I don’t think there will be any caution thrown to the wind by these teams this year because of the three going down. I think there’ll be a lot more of battening down the hatches, 10 behind the ball and ‘let’s see if we can hit them on the counter-attack and dig out a point’ approach.
“And the challenge for us, away from home but particularly in Turner’s Cross, will be trying to break down teams who will want to sit in. Every point is going to be more valuable this year.”
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