Cork gunning to banish the ghosts of Dundalk past
Published 18/03/2016 | 02:30
The challenge for Cork City in Oriel Park tonight is to inflict pain on the League of Ireland champions when it really matters.
John Caulfield is still waiting for a first league win over Dundalk and the inability to do so has contributed significantly to back-to-back second-place finishes behind Stephen Kenny's side.
They did improve their record last year by drawing two of the three meetings compared to a 100pc loss record in 2014, most notably in the final-day decider at the border venue.
But the year ended with bitter pain for the Leesiders when an extra-time strike from Richie Towell decided the top-two clash in the FAI Cup final.
At this stage, they have ample reason to believe they owe Dundalk one and victory in the curtain raising President's Cup at Turner's Cross last month was viewed as a strong statement of intent.
The importance can only be judged in hindsight; if the head-to-head battles swing in their balance this term then Cork might look back on it as a big moment.
But if Kenny's charges maintain their advantage over their rivals then it could just as easily go down as a wake-up call for them at no cost.
They have made a perfect start to their league tilt which means are three points ahead of Cork on account of their slip in Derry seven days ago. Caulfield's troops responded by thrashing Longford 6-0 last Monday and he thinks that demonstrated the improvements he has made in the attacking department over the winter - the in-form Sean Maguire has a particular point to prove after failing to get a look-in at Dundalk.
"The positive is that we beat them in the President's Cup final," said the Cork boss.
"Obviously their manager said they didn't play well that day and they will be waiting for us in the league.
"I have said since the start of pre-season that I felt the new players coming in have given us a lot more options and we are more dynamic. The indications are that we are creating a lot of chances and we are scoring goals.
"They are the team to beat. We have pushed them very close for two seasons and obviously we are trying to see can we do that little bit extra.
" It's a tall order but we have beaten them already this season and we drew up there last season, so we have been very close.
"It is about us making sure that we go out there with a proper game plan, that we have the attitude we had the other night and that we target the areas that will cause them trouble. It is important for us to show them how good we are."
Disappointingly, there is no live TV coverage of their first joust this term and it's unfortunate that a night featuring two massive fixtures is flying under the radar in a hectic week.
The other members of the current big four meet in Tallaght with St Patrick's Athletic aiming to halt Shamrock Rovers' momentum.
Pat Fenlon's team have taken three wins from three without setting the world alight, whereas Saints fans have endured an extreme of emotions with an error-strewn loss to Galway followed by a hard-fought success in Longford and the emphatic dismissal of Bohemians last Monday.
Liam Buckley has altered his squad considerably over the winter and one of the main men who stayed around - striker Christy Fagan - feels the upheaval might have played some part in the Galway reverse. But that short-term pain could lead to long-term gain.
"We're still disappointed about Galway," said Fagan. "But it takes time, it's different from pre-season when there's a competitive edge.
"It (changes to group) is nice, it freshens everything up around the place. Not just on match days but going into training too with new faces and new personalities around the changing room. It's been good so far."
Fagan spent so long on the treatment table in 2015 that his availability also has a certain novelty value and a goal in each game this term has emphasised just how much they missed him.
He is excited by the prospect of bringing his form into the kind of occasion that he really hated watching from the sidelines during his absence.
"They're all big games but to have two Dublin derbies in a week is great, Monday's result sets us up nicely going into it," says the 26-year-old.
Rovers' success or otherwise in keeping him quiet will be one of the major factors in what promises to be an informative night.