AN unexpected phone call last August kick-started the wildest of rollercoaster rides for new Galway United manager John Caulfield.
Having parted ways with Cork City in 2019, managerial opportunities came and went over the past year as Caulfield temporarily returned to his previous job with Diageo. Then everything changed.
‘Alan Murphy, the former Galway United manager, was let go on a Tuesday and I got a phone call the following day. I was announced on the Friday and I watched Galway play Bray Wanderers in the league that same evening,’ Caulfield recalled.
‘Was I excited? Of course I was. I love managing and I love coaching. There were other opportunities over the previous seven or eight months but nothing that felt right for me.
‘I immediately thought that Galway represented a real opportunity. One club in one city and with a great fan base if you are doing well. They were a club I felt were underachieving but with enormous potential. I jumped at the chance.’
Galway United sat second from bottom of the SSE Airtricity First Division table with a miserly four points from seven league games the day the former Cork City manager took over.
In football, a new manager’s arrival can often herald an upturn in an underperforming team’s fortunes – but no-one could have envisaged what happened next.
‘I honestly didn’t see Galway improving in such a short period of time the day I took over,’ Caulfield admitted.
‘Yes, every team gets a bit of a bounce when a new manager comes in. Players see it as a new opportunity. I saw plenty of talent in the Galway squad as I’d been watching League of Ireland football throughout the year and had a good knowledge of the players.
‘At the same time, did I see us being in the Premier Division play-offs after ten matches with so few points on the board? Certainly not.’
Caulfield’s impact was (almost) instantaneous. His first match in charge was a 5-2 FAI Cup second-round loss to Shelbourne. A previously underachieving Galway team quickly found their feet however, as Caulfield orchestrated a magnificent run of form.
Athlone Town, UCD, Shamrock Rovers II, Wexford Youths and Cabinteely were all defeated before Cobh Ramblers temporarily halted Galway’s revival. A 6-2 thrashing of Longford Town preceded four points from a possible nine in United’s final three league games of the season.
Amazingly, having languished at the bottom of the First Division, Caulfield’s arrival helped Galway United finish fifth and reach the play-off semi-finals.
‘Anything was possible but a fifth-place finish and play-off place was only going to happen if Galway won eight out of our ten remaining games,’ the former Cork City manager said.
‘We won five in a row and people began to believe. Then we lost one of our best players, Kevin Farragher, who moved to England and lost our next game. We had a phenomenal result against Longford but then we were hit with two cases of Covid within the squad which meant isolation for some of the lads and all the protocols.
‘There was adversity in all of that but the lads bounced back and we got over the line and into the play-offs on goal difference. A rollercoaster of a journey if ever there was one!’
A solitary Wilson Waweru goal was enough to see off Bray Wanderers 1-0 in the play-off semi-finals. Galway United were now 90 minutes from gaining promotion to the Premier Division. Then another dip in the rollercoaster ride. There would be no fairy-tale ending to Caulfield’s first season in charge as Longford Town edged the Tribesmen 2-1 in the play-off decider. So near yet so far for Galway United and their new manager.
Still, there’s plenty to look forward to in 2021 as Galway will push for promotion again, and there’s also the tantalising prospect of facing his former club Cork City, who were relegated from the Premier.
‘What I’ve learned from football is that you are constantly under pressure, no matter what,’ the Galway manager admitted.
‘Because the First Division offers only one automatic promotion, it is an incredibly difficult league to get out of. Cork City and Shelbourne being added to it will make it even more of a dogfight next season.
‘Longford beating Shelbourne in this year’s play-off final was the first time a First Division club won that game in years.
‘I’m putting in structures at Galway United that I’ve learned from all my experiences of managing teams to build for the future. I’m building a squad to play high-energy, attacking football. It is a case of signing young 20, 21 and 22-year-old players and building a core to make sure I have a team that can compete for that automatic promotion spot.
‘As for facing Cork City, I haven’t had time to think that much about it, honestly. As a manager, player and supporter, I was desperately disappointed to see the club go down. We will deal with those Cork City games when they come around. Hopefully, we will have fans back in the grounds at that stage and a cracking atmosphere.
‘I am now employed by Galway United. I’m a football man and my only focus is bringing Galway back to the Premier Division.’