It’s never easy for any manager to face the microphone after seeing his team come off second best, still less when it’s not just a game but a league title which has been lost in the preceding 90 minutes.
To John Caulfield’s credit, he was entirely gracious in defeat in Oriel Park after Dundalk’s 2-0 win in Friday night’s SSE Airtricity League decider, hailing Stephen Kenny’s splendid side as worthy champions.
But, still coming to terms with the crushing disappointment of seeing his team’s chances of lifting the trophy extinguished on the final night, Caulfield admitted it will take some time for him to be able to reflect on the many positives of Cork City’s thrilling season.
“I know people will say we’ve over-achieved and the lads have done fantastic, and they have really, but you prepare and work hard all week to go and win the trophy,” he said.
“I felt we needed to score first, with the way Dundalk were and the pitch and everything. We did a lot of work on counter-attacking.
“In the first half, Mark O’ Sullivan had a chance from a cross and obviously Billy Dennehy hit the post from a free-kick. I think if we’d scored then, we’d have gone on to win the match.
“But once they went ahead, they were outstanding, and played really well in the second half. We found it difficult to get on the ball and pass it. Rob Lehane did have a header towards the back post, against the run of play, and that would have made it one-all with ten minutes to go. And who knows, then? But they got the second and, to be fair to Dundalk, they’re great champions and a super team.”
But City too have won many admirers for the way in which they pushed the title race right to wire, confounding most pre-season expectations of what the club might achieve under a first-time League of Ireland manager.
“I suppose, back last December, everyone was wondering who I was, who were this crowd and how would they do,” says Caulfield. “But I felt that there was a lot of potential in the team. We worked really hard and the lads have done brilliantly. A lot of players who were unknown have come through. From that point of view, what they’ve achieved has been absolutely incredible. But it doesn’t take away from the disappointment of losing the league on the last day of the season.”
And Caulfield won’t even have any time to lick his wounds.
“Not a chance. My work over the next few weeks is to see if we can bring in a couple of quality guys in areas that we need. But, as I keep saying, these lads here have been outstanding, absolutely brilliant. And now we have to reflect and see if next year we can keep ourselves up there. We won’t rest on our laurels.”
Cork City chief executive Timmy Murphy, though visibly emotional after the final whistle – “it’s an empty feeling,” he admitted – did his best under the difficult circumstances to put the achievements of the year into context.
“When we appointed John our collective target was a top four spot and the hope of getting European football,” he said. “And we set out trying to have a good year financially and then probably spend the next five years getting ourselves into a good financial state after the difficulties of last year. I’m delighted to say that, part way through this year, we’ve revised it to three years.
“And football-wise, there’s absolutely no doubt we’ve come a hell of a long way. European qualification has been secured, fourth place was secured weeks ago. We’ve got to a place that, if back in March we’d told people we’d be here, they’d probably have laughed at us, realistically. So we’ve made a massive amount of progress both on and off the pitch.
“There’s no getting away from the disappointment now but when we look back, we’ll say, ‘what a year it’s been’. We have to be hugely proud of John, the players, the volunteers and, equally, if not above all, the supporters. And next year? We’ll have Europe, the Setanta Cup and we’ll want to go one better in the league. Dundalk did it after last year. So why not? We’ll be rattling again next year. I have no doubt about it.”
Meanwhile, Tommy Dunne, a man who did so much as manager to help resuscitate the re-born Cork City, has another chance to take a team up into the Premier Division.
Tonight, his Galway side are at the Bowl in Belfield for the first leg of the promotion/relegation play-off against UCD. Kick off is at 7.45pm.
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