Thursday 20 July 2017

Daniel McDonnell: Continued progress from the Leesiders is vital for success of entire domestic game

Aaron Drinan (9) celebrates with team-mates after scoring Cork City’s first goal in their UEFA Youth League win over HJK Helsinki at Turner’s Cross last week Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Aaron Drinan (9) celebrates with team-mates after scoring Cork City’s first goal in their UEFA Youth League win over HJK Helsinki at Turner’s Cross last week Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There was a European night last week which did produce a happy Irish ending. Dundalk's near miss against Zenit St Petersburg grabbed national headlines but, in Cork, where City fans are sick of the Louth men hogging the headlines, they did have a cause for celebration after their U-19 side enjoyed victory in their maiden UEFA Youth League tie with HJK Helsinki.

The tense second-leg success at Turner's Cross over full-time opposition was a significant achievement for Stephen Bermingham's side, a team that essentially consists of youngsters that are studying in school or college as opposed to being part of an established professional set-up.

Their reward is a meeting with the stars of the AS Roma academy in the next round, a daunting test that will nonetheless give the Leesiders invaluable experience which they were not expecting at the start of the year.

Favourable results in the senior Champions League qualifiers opened the path for last year's Airtricity League U-19 winners to see where they stand with their continental counterparts.

And the good news story popped up at just the right time as City followers came to terms with a disastrous week that gave control of the League of Ireland title race to Dundalk for the third year in a row.

Over 1,200 fans came out to watch the youths despite the alternative attraction of Barcelona and Man City, a bigger turnout than the combined figure for last Monday's rearranged Premier Division fixtures involving Dundalk and Cork which ran into the Liverpool-Manchester United showdown.

Issues

Much was made of the poor attendances, which ultimately boiled down to issues at home teams St Patrick's Athletic and Longford as their respective seasons petered away to nothing.

If they hadn't been hosting the top two, the dreadful crowds would likely have slipped under the radar. Still, any trigger for discussion should be welcomed.

In common with most League of Ireland years, the big games staged by the leading contenders have attracted the biggest attendances. It's the apathy further down the table - and in Dublin in particular - that is the real cause for concern.

League of Ireland crowds have always been an extreme version of the Irish supporting mentality: the event-junkie syndrome.

Turnouts fluctuate wildly depending on success levels and six matches in less than three weeks severely test that. Feeling that the league tilt was over, a crowd of 1,800 was present for Cork's dismissal of St Pat's on Friday.

If they were a few points closer to Dundalk or even in a position to go top of the table, they could easily have added another 3,000 or 4,000 to that gate. On Saturday morning, Cork announced that they've already sold out a special cup final train ahead of their Aviva date with Dundalk on November 6.

They have a floating fan base that every other club in the country would love to have, even if fickleness is part of the deal.

And that's why their continued presence at the top of the table is arguably as important for the league as Dundalk's Europa League exploits.

The point has been made on these pages before that the old line about the league 'needing' a strong Club X or Club Y is at its most relevant when Cork are in the discussion.

It's a healthier league when Cork are in good shape and the images of a bouncing Turner's Cross are a regular on the highlights package.

They've taken a few punches to the stomach in the past fortnight and TV sets were probably turned off last night as Dundalk sealed the deal but there are clear signs that the future is brighter even if it may not feel that way for the hard core at the moment.

The exploits of the U-19 team are just one aspect of that.

Cork have a wide catchment area and should always expect to be at the forefront of the national scene; they don't have the same issues as Dublin where there's intense competition.

But it's one thing to have resources and another thing to actually make use of them and, with four U-19 championships wins in six years (UCD claimed the 2016 honours on Saturday), Cork are doing things right.

Garry Buckley, Danny Morrissey and the luckless John Kavanagh have succeeded in making the leap to the first team while Chiedozie Ogbene has broken in. It looks like there is more to come.

Caulfield did have to look outside Cork to strengthen his side last winter and, while the manner of their pivotal defeat to Dundalk in Oriel Park raised questions about mentality, they are a far superior team to the slower and one-dimensional 2015 version.

Their own European run demonstrated that; it was only ended by a Genk side that defeated Athletic Bilbao last Thursday.

Dangerous

Social media can be a dangerous gauge of opinion, but Caulfield will feel the heat if another year ends trophyless.

He is unlucky that his tenure has coincided with the emergence of this generation's outstanding team. Cork should use that as the catalyst to raise their standards again.

Last night, Stephen Kenny praised an 'exceptional' Cork side for forcing his Dundalk players go up another level.

Regular European qualification will boost the coffers; they made €630k in prize-money and don't have to worry about rebuilding their entire ground.

Given that the history of football in the city is littered with turbulence and insecurity, they are actually in quite a stable phase - that in itself is an achievement considering the current incarnation started from humble beginnings under fans group FORAS in 2010.

The Cork public demands more and the league authorities need it. In an era of Dundalk dominance, they were the team that made this season interesting.

All the evidence would suggest they are here to stay.

Irish Independent

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