Denis Hurley sat down with John Caulfield to chat about Cork City’s double success
CORK City went into the 2017 League of Ireland season having finished third to Dundalk in each of the previous three campaigns.
Never before had City finished in the top two for three consecutive seasons but, because those finishes were all on the lower rung, there wasn’t unanimous appreciation of the job John Caulfield had done. The manager accepts that that’s the nature of modern football but at the same time was savvy enough to know that the Rebel Army weren’t far away.
‘Unfortunately, that is just the way football is, people don’t want to give people time,’ he says.
‘It’s all fantasy football management, people think you can sign whoever you want. Did it bother me that we finished second three years in a row? Not really, because I never looked at it that way.
‘The way I saw it, we came in, in 2014, to take over a club that had no budget and we just wanted to get a passionate team fighting for the supporters. We ended up, last day of the season, in with a chance of winning the league – you could never have foreseen that.
‘I think we overachieved that season. We were criticised at the time for our style of football but we played to the strengths of the team. The following year, on paper, we had a much better squad but, to be fair, the league win for Dundalk had given them that confidence that they went higher again.
‘We were a long way off in second and we were beaten in the cup final, the gap had got bigger. That was a critical year because we knew we had to make radical changes to the team.
‘We had a lot of great servants to the club but a lot of them were well into the 30s but the mix of the team was probably too unbalanced. That was the most difficult time for me as a manager, having to tell guys who had won medals that they wouldn’t be part of the plan going forward, that we were going with a different type of player.
‘That is tough but ultimately we had no choice as we felt if we didn’t do it we wouldn’t catch Dundalk.’
The Lilywhites won the league again in 2016, but City beat the Louth side in the FAI Cup final, Seán Maguire with a goal at the end of extra time. The confidence which came from that was invaluable, and they carried that momentum into 2017, winning the first 12 league games.
‘They believed in themselves, after winning the cup,’ Caulfield says.
‘It definitely gives you an air of confidence. I was surprised that hardly anyone tipped us, definitely in pre-season we were saying that we had a real chance.
‘You win the first game, the second, the third. Our fifth game was away to Rovers and they got an equaliser, you’re saying it’s fair enough if it’s draw but then Seáni got a penalty in the last minute to win it.
‘The following week, we’re at home to Dundalk and we beat them well in front of a full house, six out of six, then you’re going, ‘F*cking hell, can we keep winning?”. Then the hype started going and that’s something we were trying to manage. In some ways, it was nearly a blessing in disguise when we drew in Galway.
‘The dressing room was like a morgue after and the supporters were down, but for me it was about winning the following week and then we won another nine games. On reflection, you look back and say it was incredible but, at the time, you’re just in the moment and saying you need to keep your heads.’
They certainly did that at the start of June, when a hat-trick from Maguire gave them a 3-0 win over Dundalk at Oriel Park, opening up an 18-point lead.
‘That night, you’re going there and you’re 15 ahead, last night before the break, they beat you and it’s back to 12,’ Caulfield says.
‘Is that a gap they could close? It is, but you’re thinking if you win it’s 18, you know what I mean? That was a massive match and it was massive for Dundalk because not only did we beat them but we beat them 3-0 in Dundalk.
‘I saw the team turn into everything that we wanted, a really exciting team capable of creating chances and scoring them. To go there and do that to Dundalk – it was like something they might have done to us a few years previously.’
The following day, it was announced that Maguire and left-back Kevin O’Connor were to join Preston North End at the end of July. After the break, what Caulfield terms crucial wins over Limerick and Derry ensured that big lead remained, but when Maguire went, the goals weren’t as free-flowing. Did he look at many replacement options?
‘We brought in eight players over ten weeks,’ he says, ‘players who were out of contract, guys with clubs in England, we were very close to signing a guy who is over there, he’d have been a fantastic player but he pulled out the day I thought we were going to do a deal.
‘Ultimately, there was nobody we thought was better than what we had. A lot were younger, playing U21 or U23 in England with good clubs, but they weren’t going to come in and get ten goals.
‘It was incredibly frustrating. We put a massive amount of work in but we just couldn’t get the fit we wanted. When it came to a standstill, we went with a different track and signed Kieran Sadlier and moved Karl Sheppard up front.’
A win at home to Dundalk would have clinched the title but a late equaliser meant the wait went on. Eventually, scoreless draws against Bohemians and Derry City wrapped things up but City still went into the cup final against Dundalk as underdogs.
Having fallen behind in extra time, City equalised through Achille Campion before Mark McNulty’s save in the penalty shootout allowed Sadlier to score the winner.
Bouncing back in such fashion was huge for Caulfield.
‘They lost confidence and, more importantly, the opposition didn’t fear us,’ he says.
‘Two months earlier, we were beating them 5-0 and they were expecting it. We suffered our first loss at home to Bohemians – we weren’t terrible but, after going so long, when you lose it rattles fellas.
‘There was that period of a number of weeks when the confidence of the team dropped. We started giving away goals so we were dropping points but, to be fair to the players, it was difficult because everyone was saying the league was over.
‘I kept hearing “champions-elect” and people saying “You’ll win it in three games’ time, up here”. No matter what you try to do, it’s very hard not to absorb some of that. They did lose focus for a period but, mentally, it made them into a real team for the crunch and, particularly, for the cup final.
‘There’s no way that we’d have done what we did in the cup final, say, three years ago.’
There were celebrations, but Caulfield didn’t take his eye off the bigger picture. Most of the squad has been tied down for 2018, with one more big addition – likely a centre-forward – in the pipeline. Always switched on, the manager is looking ahead to the challenge.