Wednesday 18 October 2017

Maguire out to prove point to Lilies as Cork gun for glory

Cork’s Sean Maguire 'was on his knees last November'. Photo: Sportsfile
Cork’s Sean Maguire 'was on his knees last November'. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Time is tight for Sean Maguire. Seven minutes into his interview, a busy Cork official comes along to try and wind up the discussion. He's needed somewhere else.

Maguire is a man in demand and, while the rushed chat offers little scope for insight, the demand for his time says a lot about how far the Kilkenny man has come in the space of 12 months.

When Dundalk and Cork met in last year's FAI Cup final, Maguire was the forgotten man. He was a Dundalk player then but didn't feel like one when Stephen Kenny couldn't even find a spot for him on his bench.

Maguire spent the entire Aviva experience in his match-day suit and later that night, as the celebrations took off in Louth, the 19th man felt out of place and undeserving of any congratulations.

"I was feeling like I can't really let loose here because I've not really contributed anything," recalls Maguire. "I was kind of making up the numbers there.

"I was devastated not making the bench. It was heartbreaking like, because all I want to do is be playing at any level.

"I'd rather play with Cork and finish second and be disappointed than sitting on the bench at Dundalk and collecting a winner's medal that I don't even feel I deserve."

The 22-year-old was facing into an uncertain winter as his short-term stint with Dundalk concluded.

He had joined in the summer after his formal release from West Ham; loan stints at Sligo and Accrington Stanley were also on his CV. But it hadn't worked out. Cork City decided to take a chance.

"He was on his knees last November," explains John Caulfield. "No-one wanted him. "He had no offer and I couldn't promise anything other than if he put his head down and trained hard, that he would get opportunities.

"And when I saw him in pre-season working hard, I knew he was going to be phenomenal."

Maguire hit the ground running, buoyed by the faith of a manager, and he finished as the Premier Division's top scorer with 18 goals. He was also voted the Young Player of the Year and carried his form into the Irish U-21 arena too.

Suddenly, he's got options and Cork may well struggle to hold onto him. Caulfield feels there's even more improvement to come from the attacker.

And the player admits that it's been his most enjoyable campaign since his teenage breakthrough at Waterford.

The English years don't register in his reflections. Maguire came home a tad disillusioned with the game and he's actually a fitter and sharper player now.

"Even mentally I feel a lot stronger now," he stresses. "And physically I'm a lot stronger. Playing week in, week out is going to do a lot for you. I feel more mature, my decision making is getting better."

In many ways, Maguire embodies Cork's progression since their deflating experience in Lansdowne.

They struggled to land a glove on Dundalk in 2015 and when it came to the crunch, they looked older and ran out of steam in extra-time.

Daryl Horgan continued to relish the wide open spaces and his energy and acceleration created the decisive goal for Richie Towell.

They were qualities that Cork needed and Caulfield sought them out. He freshened up his dressing-room by adding the clinical Maguire and the speed of Derry winger Stephen Dooley.

The addition of Greg Bolger and the return of Gearoid Morrissey offered a midfield upgrade, with Liam Miller a shadow of his old self during his year on Leeside.

Improvement

Steven Beattie can operate at right-back or the right side of midfield and he is another improvement on the old model; he also watched last year's final from the stands because he was cup-tied. The dimensions of the Aviva will also suit his strengths.

"John said in the dressing-room afterwards that we'd be back again in a year, and we are," says Kevin O'Connor, who has now made the left-back position his own and is also a member of the Irish U-21 set-up.

"Dundalk are the benchmark and that's what we are trying to get to and surpass it if we can."

It does feel like Cork have more to lose. Defeat would mean a whole winter to reflect on a campaign without silverware, while Dundalk have two huge Europa League matches to focus on when the dust settles.

Kenny fielded a close to full-strength side in Russia and they do have to cope with the impact of a taxing week.

It should be a fascinating encounter. Cork were second best in every department in Oriel Park on October 11 and they definitely missed Morrissey's bite in the centre of the park.

Dundalk are stacked with options in that department, even with question marks over Robbie Benson's availability. Stephen O'Donnell only played 45 minutes against Zenit and should be able to lead the side out.

Kenny's charges have taken every challenge in their stride and have the options to deal with any fatigue. The adrenaline of another Aviva experience should naturally boost their levels.

And, while their expansive play has won admirers, they have a streetwise sense that has stood to them in a year packed with big matches.

If they can keep Maguire quiet, the double double is on.

Verdict: Dundalk

Irish Independent

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