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A risk John just had to take

Wednesday, 5th March, 2014 9:04am
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A risk John just had to take

Back where he belongs: Cork City manager John Caulfield is a legend of the club having made a record number of appearances for the Turner’s Cross side.

Back where he belongs: Cork City manager John Caulfield is a legend of the club having made a record number of appearances for the Turners Cross side.

Having to wait all his sportinglife for this one opportunity,Cork City’s new managerJohn Caulfield is ready forhis biggest test yet.

THIRTY-TWO minutes, that’s all it is doorstep to doorstep, from Cork City’s training ground in Bishopstown to his home in Enniskeane, the Crookstown route.

That’s it, just over half an hour every day, from home to his dream job, a position he waited all his sporting life for, and one he genuinely feared at certain times over the years was just out of his reach.

Last Friday morning, sitting in his office, a welcoming warmth to the damp cold out on the training pitch, togged out in his City tracksuit – not the shirts and ties he had become familiar with in his day jobs – the New York-born Roscommon-raised West Cork-owned legend looked at home, in his home away from home.

It’s said that good things come to those who wait, and John certainly feels that way having been appointed, last November, manager of the club he loves, honours and now serves. A legend in Turner’s Cross, a hero of The Shed end, embodying everything the club wants to stand for.

This is the opportunity he has waited and worked for, and even though it was a risk to leave his full-time job as a rep with Diageo to step into this volatile world with little job security, it’s one John just had to take, with the full backing of his wife Grainne and two daughters, Sinead and Aideen, Leaving Cert and transition-year students in Colaiste na Toirbhirte in Bandon.

‘The girls have grown up in a house where they have seen me going out the door with a gear bag every night, going to matches, coaching kids, coaching teams, playing myself, out every night of the week at something. When this came up, they were even saying that it was the ideal job for me,’ he explained.

‘It’s different for my wife as she can see the risk element but I have been managing and coaching for 11 years, to try and see if there would be a day where I could manage City. I’ll be honest, over the years I thought it wasn’t going to happen with the way things changed.

‘When this opportunity came, at my age if I didn’t do it now, a few years down the line it’s gone. I didn’t want to be looking back in ten years’ time, wishing that I had a crack off it. Live and die by the sword. I have taken a chance. I know that.

‘I just hope that we can turn the club around and make it more successful, and that there might be a few more years in it for me. But maybe there won’t be. Who knows.’

City’s new manager is walking into this with his eyes wide open. He knows the pitfalls. He knows it’s a result-driven business. If the results don’t come, the outcome is inevitable.

‘It’s your dream job if you are successful. I was at a seminar recently where Martin O’Neill was talking. He was saying that as a manager the crucial thing is to just win games. Win games, you’re okay. If you don’t, well...,’ the City manager said.

‘The media drive that has come from England has made – and it’s not just soccer too, it’s in the GAA – it almost boring to have a manager for more than two years. It’s gone nuts. That would never have happened in Ireland before, we were a much more patient people, willing to give a guy a certain length of time.

‘Look at the old-style managers, I think of Noel O’Mahony and guys like this, and it wasn’t uncommon to see a guy there for six or seven years. Maybe that was too long too, but at the moment it’s all about lose two or three games and get rid of the guy. There’s no logic to it.’

That said, John’s legend will buy him time, but only a certain amount, and he knows that.

A few steps outside his office in the club grounds in Bishopstown hangs a photograph of the 1998 Cork City FAI Cup-winning side. There’s John, front row, third from right. Another reminder of this man’s standing within this Cork sporting giant.

Remember, he knows this club inside out and back to front. He was inducted into the Cork City Official Supporters’ Club Hall of Fame in 2008. He holds the record for most appearances (455), most starts (376), most substitute appearances (79), shares the goal record (129) with Pat Morley – his strike partner for most of his time with City – and scored the club’s first hat-trick in a 3-2 win over Sligo Rovers, shortly after joining in 1986.

There was the Premier Division title in 1993, that FAI Cup in ’98, League Cup medals in 1987/88, 1994/95 and 1998/99, before he retired in 2002, swapping the playing field for the dugout.

John took charge of Munster Senior League outfit Avondale United, led them to leagues in ’08 and ’09, and FAI Intermediate Cups in ’06 and ’07, while he also trained UCC’s Munster Senior League side.

A visible track record of success for a man who found his way to Enniskeane back in 1985, working in the Soundstore shop that was there at the time.

Twenty-nine years later he is still there, married to a local woman, with two teenage daughters and now in his dream job – his first in the League of Ireland – that’s also a daunting one.

But Caulfield knows what he wants and where he wants to take his new-look City with several new faces brought in over the last few weeks, but he openly admits it’s not going to be a quick-fix snap-your-fingers solution.

‘You’re hoping that the strong people within the club will back you in the sense that they will see what you are trying to do is right,’ he said.

‘At the same time a lot of clubs are swayed big time by an element of the support. I am well aware of all that. I didn’t come in thinking that I wasn’t going to have a bad day.

‘What I am trying to get across is a strong mentality in the club that I feel hasn’t been here the last number of years and I want to get our strong support back.

‘People will know that with me here that my intentions are right, as a former player and as a supporter, that whatever I am trying to do is for the good of the club. It will be difficult because the standard of the league is gone so high.

‘Unfortunately from the time the club went defunct years ago to the time the supporters, FORAS, took over the club, which was fantastic, we spent a few years in the First Division where the standard is low. We got out of it but the last few seasons we have been sixth, which is mid-table. We’ve been a long way off the top.

‘It’s not as simple as me walking in, waving a magic wand and all of a sudden we will be top of the league. It’s not that easy. But I believe in a couple of seasons we will be up there at the top and competitive, and that supporters when they come to the Cross will know that we have given everything we have, even if the other team is better than us and beats us 1-0.

‘I want the supporters going out the game to say, “Well, these guys really worked their arses off”.’

Hanging on a wall in the Cork City manager’s office is a framed photo of Al Pacino, he of Any Given Sunday fame. It turns out it was a present from his UCC players, a well-taken joke aimed at the high standards John sets and demands.

A couple of feet to its right, on a white board, six words dominate, ‘Winners are workers, Losers makes excuses’. Again, fairly self-explanatory. He keeps his players focussed.

‘We have no chance if every guy doesn’t work or train as hard as they can or be in his best physical condition, or when he gets out on the pitch doesn’t try as hard as he can, whether that’s with the ball or without the ball, closing down when you don’t have it, making runs that mightn’t be seen. If we have that we have a chance,’ he stated with an authority and experience that makes you listen, and believe.

Just ask any of his former teammates or players during his time with St Mary’s GAA Club in Enniskeane, or his time on the Carbery divisional team or as an All-Ireland winning Cork junior footballer. They’ll tell you not only is he one of the good guys but that he’s driven and determined, and expects the best.

With Mary’s he soldiered through the dark days as a player (he played up until 2007) and was heavily involved in the club’s greatest day, that 2009 first-ever West Cork junior A football championship triumph. Days that live with you forever.

‘Everyone knows about the GAA ethos. My father is a very strong GAA man. We are one club in Enniskeane, in a parish of three junior clubs,’ John explained, now in GAA mode, passionate as ever.

‘The Enniskeane area is massive but the problem is that we have too many clubs. If Diarmuid Ó Mathunas, St Oliver Plunkett’s and St Mary’s were the one club I have no doubt it would be a very, very strong intermediate club because all three clubs have had fantastic footballers. But having three clubs in the one parish means that your pick is so tiny as a consequence.

‘Then again there is an intensity and a local bonding within every club that even though at the outset that merging the three clubs makes sense, individually every one is quite content to stick with their own.

‘Mary’s, when I was there first and especially at the start, weren’t successful. There was no back door in the championship. When I first back to West Cork, Carbery Rangers, Bantry, Dohenys and Ilen Rovers were all huge junior clubs who couldn’t even win West Cork titles at that time.

‘In 2004 we regraded to junior B, won a county and got back up to junior 1. Then in 2009 we won our first-ever West Cork junior A with a very good bunch of players. Our problem was that the panel was very small and if you lose a few fellas to emigration that can hurt you.’

Part of the backroom team in ’09, he took a year out the following season before being handed the manager’s reigns of the Mary’s juniors in 2011 and ’12. In both seasons Bandon were the rock they perished on, at the semi-final stage in ’11 (1-7 to 0-9), and in a quarter-final the following season (2-7 to 1-8).

‘That was disappointing as we were as close to Bandon as we had been in years,’ he sighed.

In those early days in West Cork, he played both soccer with City and GAA with Mary’s as the seasons didn’t interfere with one another, Gaelic football in the summer, soccer from winter through to spring, unlike now.

‘It’s a different world in soccer now compared to when I played. The enormous change is that we have gone from winter to summer soccer,’ he explained.

‘The pluses are that the weather is better and that the grounds are better. All the grounds in the premier division now are excellent all-seaters.

‘From a crowd point of view I think that summer football has affected Cork because you are in the middle of the football and hurling championships and people have only so much money.

‘Personally I would have been a traditionalist and preferred the old season. I can see the pluses on both sides but we are in summer football and that’s the way it is.

‘There’s a different type of player out there compared to my day. It’s much more a passing game now with the new laws, tackling from behind and all that. It’s more about keeping possession now, more passing.’

Players themselves have changed, for the good, since John’s time of going to the chipper after a game. Those days are gone. In its place are fitness fanatics, non-drinkers that eat the right stuff but he added: ‘There’s still what I would call a common sense element. You can have all the shakes you want but at the end of the day mentally you still have to have guys who are strong enough to win matches.’

It’s just over a week to go until their Airtricity League season-opener at home to champions St Patrick’s Athletic, with Keith Fahey added to their ranks, at a packed Turner’s Cross on Friday week, March 7th, at 7.45pm – a certain butterflies-in-the-stomach moment for a man who looks so relaxed on this Friday afternoon.

That night he will walk into his battle ground a different man to before. There was pressure in his playing days to find the back of the net, but this is a different pressure, as a club and its fans expects.

‘There’s always been pressure. In your day job you have to get up, earn your salary, deliver sales, that’s pressure. It’s there in every job. I feel it a lucky privilege to be in the position I am now. We all know the GAA is a fantastic organisation but every GAA player would love to be full time, of course they would,’ he said.

‘Growing up you’d dream of making a living out of the sport you love, and for it to happen for me after 30 years is fantastic. I’m well aware what could happen if the results aren’t there.

‘I have been in the amateur scene for the last few years, managing Avondale in the Munster Senior League and UCC, and my knowledge of the underage scene and who’s coming through would be very good.

‘There would be a feeling in the county and city area that at least young fellas coming through will know that they will get a chance here, and that if there are fellas out there at the minute who are good enough to step up to the mark then I would know about them.’

Caulfield also stresses that it’s important for Cork City to have a Cork identity, one that the fans in the stands can relate to, as he attempts to win back supporters who have drifted from the club in recent years. His target of a top-four place this season would go some way towards achieving that.

‘We want guys to sense the pride, that we are different to Shamrock Rovers, that we are different to Bohemians, that we are from here, that this is our patch,’ he said.

‘We want it so that Cork guys stay in Cork and play in Cork, that when you walk down Patrick’s Street that everyone will know you and that when you go to Turner’s Cross to play there is 7,000 people there. That’s Cork. That won’t be anywhere else.

‘In Ireland we are championship people. That’s the way we’ve been bred. We go to the big games, the Munster final, the All-Ireland final but how many go to the first round of the league in Páirc Uí Rinn?

‘It’s the same with us. If we play Shamrock Rovers or St Pat’s everybody wants to be there. If we play UCD or Bray the crowds wouldn’t be the same. What we need to do is get our hardcore regulars back plus the floaters who are interested in us but they might go to five or six games. Crucially it all boils down to results.’

As for Arsenal, his club across the Irish Sea, even though its waned in recent years, and their hopes against Bayern Munich in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie, 2 – 0 down after the opening leg?

‘No chance, that’s all over,’ he says matter-of-factly.

With Cork City, it’s all beginning. A new era. A legend at the helm. It’s time for the stars to align.