Maguire in the right place to end Cork's three years of frustration
Cork City 1 Dundalk 0
This was Cork’s day, a reward for the perseverance that lifted a club from its knees. For the fans, this was the culmination of a journey which started on a bus to Derry six years ago with a bag of jerseys, a rapidly assembled bunch of players, a long-winded name and not much else.
It was the hard work of volunteers that got Cork City Foras Co-Op off the ground to restore pride to League of Ireland football on Leeside.
For John Caulfield, it was a reward for three years chasing down a Dundalk side that had pipped them to every post. He needed this success as a marker for his side’s progression.
And for goalscoring hero Sean Maguire, the right man in the right place in the 121st minute, it was the golden Aviva Stadium moment to erase the memory of watching last year’s final in the stands, surplus to Dundalk’s requirements.
The familiar face would dash their double-double dreams in the dying seconds, with a long throw that fell his way finding the net via a speculative left-footer and a fortuitous deflection off Brian Gartland. This was the break to rewrite the script of Dundalk dominance and Cork disappointment.
The old-timers knew the significance. When Rob Rogers sounded the final whistle, goalkeeper Mark McNulty and veteran centre-half Alan Bennett shared an emotional embrace. Tears flowed.
McNulty was the one member of Cork’s starting team that was involved in the rebirth fixture in Derry six years ago. Bennett was in England then, but home was always in his heart and he desperately wanted a medal from his second stint.
On the morning of the match, his mother sent him in an old picture of a young Bennett in City gear. “That’s the way it is in my family,” he explained, “We’ve always supported the club and gone to games in Bishopstown and Turner’s Cross.
“I’m so happy for Nults as well, he’s such a Cork man through and through. We really wanted this. The thought of losing was petrifying me.”
The thirtysomethings were integral to Cork’s victory. Five minutes from the end of extra-time, they discussed the situation when Garry Buckley was down injured.
“I said to Benno, ‘What do you reckon, do we go for it or are we happy with penalties? Will we kill it?’ And Benno said, ‘No no, let’s go for it’.”
They committed bodies when they won the late throw that Steven Beattie launched into the area for Maguire’s scruffy winner. The minor details were of no concern to the victorious side who, as McNulty admitted, were sick of acting as a bridesmaid to their rivals – the European trailblazers.
The respect between the sides was evident afterwards, yet there’s a nice edge too and Bennett admitted this was sweet after taking umbrage at the Dundalk celebrations in last month’s league decider.
It was a curious end to a game where the pendulum swung both ways. Cork were awful in the first half, a shadow of the side that has improved in 2016.
Despite nearly losing Stephen O’Donnell to a calf injury and sporadically coping without Chris Shields as a head bandage from an early clash posed problems, Dundalk owned possession.
“We were very nervous,” acknowledged Caulfield, who was satisfied with the second-half improvement and felt his team dominated until the end of regulation time with the final 30 finely poised. “It was like two heavyweights going at it.”
McNulty did make two important stops before the interval, keeping out Daryl Horgan and Dave McMillan. His opposite number Gary Rogers came to the fore afterwards, stopping a shot from sub Chiedozie Ogbene that followed a Maguire cross.
At that juncture, it looked as though Dundalk were suffering from Russian-related fatigue. But O’Donnell and man of the match Ronan Finn were immense as they overcame the sticky spell and the favourites were the more assured outfit in the rump of the extra half-hour.
Ciaran Kilduff could have won it in normal time with a late header that sailed over, and Finn overplayed one break where Dundalk had men over before unleashing a right-footer that fizzed wide.
But Cork have kept 27 clean sheets this term for a reason and while Dundalk found space in midfield to fashion half-chances, Bennett and Kenny Browne were disciplined and the shape was solid enough. McNulty cited belief as the crucial factor to get them through the rougher spells.
Colin Healy’s know-how helped in a late cameo, including a vital tackle on Horgan who buzzed around and created opportunities in front of the watching Martin O’Neill without ever getting the freedom to repeat his heroics from the Oriel Park showdown.
Maguire, by contrast, found the room to get off the shot that ensures his place in Cork’s history. “It wasn’t my best game or our best game,” he said. “And in the last ten minutes, I was focusing on where I’d put my penalty.
“But we all deserved this, the players, the managers, the fans. Scoring the winner in the last minute against your former club – those moments don’t come around too often.”
Caulfield admitted it’s possible he could lose the Kilkenny man to the UK this winter after a campaign where he scored 29 in all competitions, the same tally as the 2015 hero Richie Towell.
Keeping him will be vital in the next phase of a rivalry between the established top two. “This will put a smile on everyone’s face for Christmas,” said Caulfield, but some players were already speaking of next year.
“The first trophy is the hardest one to get,” asserted McNulty. “It’s been sickening watching Dundalk win everything but we’ll push on now.”
This is just the end of the beginning.
Cork City – McNulty, Beattie, Browne, Bennett, O’Connor; Bolger (O’Sullivan 96), Morrissey (Healy 100); Sheppard (Ogbene 77), Buckley, Dooley; Maguire
Dundalk – Rogers, Gannon, Boyle, Gartland, Massey; Shields (Mountney 55), O’Donnell; McEleney (Shiels 76), Finn, Horgan; McMillan (Kilduff 78)
Ref – R Rogers (Dublin)