THE fixture-setters for the 2021 SSE Airtricity League First Division must have had a sense of mischief when they determined that the final night of the season, October 29th, would see Cork City host John Caulfield’s Galway United.
With the teams in second, third, fourth and fifth place all in with a shout of a promotion play-off spot, there’s a chance that a lot could be riding on the match – and, being optimistic, there could be a full house in Turner’s Cross. While Caulfield has often patrolled the touchline at the Cross in such situations, doing so as an away manager will be a new scenario.
There’s a lot of football to be played between now and then, though, including Galway’s first visit to Cork on May 21st. Having been appointed last August, with the Tribesmen second-from-bottom of the first division, Caulfield turned things around as Galway went on a run that saw them finish fifth.
That meant the play-offs, with a win over second-placed Bray Wanderers sending them to a clash with Longford Town, who ultimately prevailed and then beat Shelbourne in the promotion/relegation game. After being out of management for more than a year since leaving Cork City in May 2019, he was keen to get stuck in.
‘The thing about it was that I came in midseason, with about ten games to go,’ he says.
‘Obviously, the club were struggling and were second-bottom in the table so it was an easy one to just get stuck in straightaway.
‘The most important thing for me was meeting the squad and getting on the training pitch, trying to get a bit of confidence into the team. Ultimately, that’s what I tried to do and that’s what happened – we got our first win and we went on a run.’
It’s a long trek up to the west coast from his home in Enniskeane, away from wife Gráinne and daughters Sinéad and Aideen, but he is appreciative of the fortunate position he’s in.
‘I’m in Galway five or six days a week,’ he says.
‘When it’s pre-season and there are no matches, you’re doing a little bit extra. We’re in a position where we’re able to do what we love and get out there – 99 percent of people playing sport can’t get out there. We’re fortunate in that regard.’
And now, having shown what Galway can do in a limited period of time, Caulfield is keen to build on that.
‘With five points after eight games and no wins heading into August, all of the planning and discussion was about putting things in place for next season,’ he says.
‘I don’t think at that stage that anyone thought we’d hit the playoffs – the first thing was just to see if we could get a win. We managed to win five in a row and then, all of a sudden, you began looking at possibly making the play-offs.
‘Certainly, by the way the season finished and what happened, there’s certainly a spring in the step and a positive attitude among guys that we need to be ready to compete and stay up near the top.’
In that regard, the signing of midfielder Conor McCormack – who won a league and cup double under Caulfield at Cork City – is huge.
‘Obviously, Conor is a guy that I have a close relationship with. After a few chats and looking at the bigger picture, the board backed me to sign him. He has shown great leadership because it’s a young team – other than Shane Duggan, the bulk of the team are 21, 22, 23. Conor gives a lot of experience and that’s what a young group needs,’ Caulfield explains.
Cork City, now managed by Colin Healy, will of course be looking to be in the promotion mix, too. Caulfield has managed against the Rebel Army – he did so twice while in charge of Avondale United, including the 2005 Munster Senior Cup final – but not since leaving.
He might not wish to be going up against City, but he accepts the nature of things.
‘From my own point of view, the Cork City era was incredible for me,’ he says, ‘it was a great experience.
‘I know people will say that there were bad results towards the end but that happens in football. All my memories are fantastic, the support and meeting people all over the city and county.
‘It is what it is, I’m manager of Galway now and it’s unfortunate that we’re going to be up against Cork City. Will I take a little bit of flak? Of course, you get that everywhere but people know where I came from and that I gave it everything I had. We had phenomenal times and I don’t think anyone would say I wasn’t at it 24/7. A bit of stick is all part of the game as well!’