Shields fired up ahead of another Cork battle
Published 24/04/2015 | 02:30
Some games don't require a sales pitch. Tonight, in Turner's Cross, the biggest match of this League of Ireland campaign to date brings together the protagonists that served up a thrilling climax to last season.
Cork City lost that Airtricity League decider to Dundalk at a packed Oriel Park and the word revenge will be thrown around ahead of their first meeting since that epic night.
The visitors arrive in good heart after the announcement that boss Stephen Kenny has signed the contract extension that was initially discussed in the aftermath of that win. It ties him down to the club until the end of 2016.
Cork have an obvious motivation to upset the good vibes in the visiting camp which goes beyond settling scores.
It's already abundantly clear that the results of the matches between the big guns will prove crucial in a league where teams in the bottom half of the table are struggling to land a blow.
John Caulfield's charges were actually more efficient than Kenny's side when it came to dispensing the also-rans in 2014.
They wound up with an empty trophy cabinet because the Louth men prevailed in all three head-to-head meetings and ended up claiming the crown by a two-point margin - the same advantage they hold at the top heading into this intriguing encounter.
Chris Shields, the unsung hero of the Lilywhites' midfield, is hoping for similar joy this term even if he has mixed memories of the defining clash at Oriel where he was forced off injured in the ninth minute.
"I was coming off in tears nearly," he recalls. "That was a massive blow because all week you're thinking, 'Big game Friday, massive, can't wait' and then I last nine minutes and don't even think I touched the ball four times.
"I was a nervous wreck on the bench, my head was in my hands because I wasn't used to it. I'd played a lot of games so to know it was out of your hands was a sickener. I was sitting there like a fan.
"But I didn't care once we got that result that night," he adds, with a genuine smile. "I was dancing on a sprained knee ligament all night."
Shields has become part of the furniture in Dundalk, a considerable achievement seeing as he is a survivor from the torrid 2012 campaign where the entire dressing-room was viewed as dead wood. The arrival of Kenny transformed the career of a holding midfielder who is used to doing the grafting while others hog the limelight.
Kenny is stacked with options and Stephen O'Donnell, the saviour last October, has had to be patient upon his return from a setback as Shields has been living up to his surname by protecting the back four, while Richie Towell and Ronan Finn press on.
"I'll leave the poster boys to that," he laughs. "Richie and Ronan, the boy-banders. Gorgeous George and his mate. I'll leave them to it. I get plenty of plaudits off the lads and I don't really need to be the sung hero.
"I know exactly what my role is, it took me a few years to lock down a position under Stephen and he helped me to do that, he's instilled confidence and gives you the motivation to go out and play for him."
Caulfield has imbued his Cork team with a comparable mentality and Shields is relishing a battle in a venue that all players in the league get a buzz from on a busy night.
"You thrive off it," he stresses. "It's a good football ground, there's four stands, there's good noise levels. We'll bring a good support and it makes for a great game and that isn't the case every week. It's the one that everyone cherishes, especially if it's a top-of-the-table clash - that makes it a bit special."
Cork have a celebrated engine room of their own which will provide a tough work-out for the 24-year-old. "Liam Miller coming back was a big talking point and Colin Healy is another ex-international but we've just as good a midfield," he argues. "Richie is scoring goals at the right time and Ronan is a special player."
These are the ingredients that have increased the anticipation around this showdown. Towell has scored seven in his last five starts and will be on the mind of a City class that have bristled at criticisms of their style of play.
Cork legend Dave Barry argued that the 'Dublin media' need to make more trips south, where Caulfield's troops have a 100pc home record from four games with 12 goals scored and none conceded.
Dundalk are comfortably the best team they have welcomed to town, though, and it should provide fireworks as another battle royale for the crown gathers pace.