SUNDAY’S FAI Cup final at the Aviva Stadium was like the 2018 season in microcosm – Cork City were quite good but, unfortunately for the Rebel Army, Dundalk were better.
After the double win of 2017, anything less was always going to be seen as disappointing but City had to bend the knee to the Lilywhites this time round, with Stephen Kenny’s side putting together a 13-game winning run after losing against Waterford at the beginning of May.
While a 2-1 defeat to the Louth side brought the curtain down on City’s season, if there was a knife-edge moment in the season it was the 2-1 in favour of Dundalk when they entertained John Caulfield’s side at Oriel Park on June 29th, just after the mid-summer break.
City went into that game a point ahead at the top of the table and, as it went into injury time, it looked like the status quo would prevail as sub Josh O’Hanlon had equalised in the wake of Krisztian Adorjan putting the hosts ahead.
There was still time for one late attack though and, when sub Ronan Murray sent a cross over from the left intended for Patrick Hoban, City defender Seán McLoughlin was unlucky to steer the ball into his own net as he attempted to clear.
Oriel Park rocked that night, as team, management and support appreciated just what a big win it was.
Having won the eight league games going into the break, the ending of that run might have caused doubts in Dundalk minds.
Instead, they moved two points clear at the top and, a week later, City lost their 100 percent home record as they drew 0-0 with Shamrock Rovers, who had teenage goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu to thank for a penalty save from Kieran Sadlier.
While City would lead the table again, it was always in a situation where they had more games played than Dundalk.
When Dundalk’s winning run was ended by Shamrock Rovers, it provided a glimmer of hope for City but, unfortunately for them, it came at a period when they were undergoing their worst spell of form.
Having drawn at home to St Patrick’s Athletic before Dundalk’s defeat to Shamrock Rovers, City took the lead in their next game at home to Sligo Rovers – and hit the post when a second goal would have secured victory – but instead the concession of two late goals saw a first home league defeat in a year.
A 4-2 reversal at Bohemians and then a 1-0 loss to Dundalk at the Cross removed any doubts about the return of the title to Oriel Park. Back at Dalymount for the FAI Cup semi-final, there was almost another defeat but this time a late Sadlier penalty secured a draw and that signified a turnaround in fortunes, with the replay won at the Cross and City finishing the league campaign with three straight wins. Ultimately though, they end up with nothing apart from the glorified friendly of the President’s Cup and the Munster Senior Cup.
Not that there’s any time for the licking of wounds, something Caulfield is well aware of.
With a number of players out of contract and set to depart – and the possibility of losing a few who are under contract – there is a big task on the manager’s hands, made tougher with reports of a smaller budget for 2019.
The squad rebuilding process has already begun though, with the signing of Bohs defender Dan Casey announced on Tuesday.
‘It’s a fantastic job, I love every minute of it, but it’s brutal,’ Caulfield said before the cup final.
‘You end up with a number of players out of contract on Monday morning and you are out there trying to get players and 80 percent are out of contract. It’s part and parcel of the job.
‘The PFAI tell their players they are available to talk to clubs from the start of September because of employment law, so that’s even harder as a manager. You have players talking to people even with the season going on.
‘We had an incident with one of our own players last year on the week of the cup final (Karl Sheppard). That’s the League of Ireland and that’s the way it is. The worst part of a manager’s career is the next two weeks. You have so many players out of contract.
‘It’s nearly a more stressful period trying to get some sort of a squad for the next season. Thankfully this year we have a number of the fellows re-signed.’
That Casey was enticed south is proof that City are still a draw, and while Dundalk have the strongest squad and substantial financial backing from American owners Peak 6, they can only stockpile so many players and City are still best-placed to challenge them, notwithstanding the annual expectation that Shamrock Rovers will step up.
The biggest difference between City in the first half of 2017 and the second half of 2017 and, subsequently, 2018 was the presence of Seán Maguire.
He had the effect of making everybody around him play better and it showed in the record-breaking run of 21 wins in 22 league games. It’s easy to lament the absence of the Preston man but his impact was so rare that the odds of finding a similar talisman are remote. Instead, City must be creative and look for goals from other sources (they scored 71 in 36 league games, compared to 85 for Dundalk.
With such a large fanbase, City will always be likely to challenge, though it’s easy to forget that, before Caulfield’s arrival, the club had never before finished in the top two in the Premier Division for three straight seasons.
Now, they have done so five times in a row, albeit four of those in second place. There’s no reason City can’t be in the mix again in 2019, but Dundalk will be just as good, if not better too. Challenging times await.