Saturday 20 October 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Champions prove their real worth when need is greatest

Talking Point

Cork City manager John Caulfield and goalkeeper Mark McNulty celebrate Cup glory last year
Cork City manager John Caulfield and goalkeeper Mark McNulty celebrate Cup glory last year

Eamonn Sweeney

Football comes at you pretty fast these days. Less than six months ago Chelsea won the Premier League title with a record number of wins. Yet their home match against Manchester United was accompanied by talk of a crisis at Stamford Bridge.

The rumblings which followed their patchy league form increased massively in volume following Tuesday night's debacle against Roma. Not much more than a quarter of a season has passed yet Antonio Conte seemed a wounded man walking. The future, apparently, was Manchester-shaped.

Chelsea's Italian head coach Antonio Conte. Photo: Getty Images
Chelsea's Italian head coach Antonio Conte. Photo: Getty Images

At least Chelsea were allowed to enjoy their new eminent status for a couple of months in the summer. Cork City had barely reached the dressing rooms after clinching the League of Ireland championship when talk began of how their triumph was lucky, their title soft, their achievement tainted by a stumbling run-in.

Their FAI Cup final against Dundalk seemed not so much an opportunity to clinch the double as a referendum on the true worth of the team.

Chelsea's meeting with United also seemed like a cup final. A home defeat would have been an effective surrender of the league title, a step aside to let Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola sort out the real business between them, a confirmation of fully-fledged collapse. They simply could not afford to lose.

Neither could Cork. During the reign of Liam Cosgrave's seventies coalition government some people from the Rebel County referred to Jack Lynch as 'The Real Taoiseach'. A cup final defeat might well have led to suggestions that Dundalk were 'The Real Champions'.

At Stamford Bridge, the visitors opened as though profoundly aware of Chelsea's vulnerability. Instead of shutting the game down as they had in recent big away outings, United were unusually adventurous and put the Blues on the back foot for the first 20 minutes. Had either will or pride been deficient, this was the moment Conte's team might have buckled.

Cork's dark night of the soul arrived later in the game but was even more testing. Having been denied a win in normal time by the extraordinary acrobatics of Dundalk 'keeper Gary Rogers they found themselves a goal down just five minutes into extra-time thanks to a thumping header from Niclas Vemmelund.

The Danish defender's goal may have been a great relief for Irish psychics who'd foreseen a player from Denmark scoring the biggest goal of his career at the Aviva in November but it left Cork with one foot in the grave.

It must have been a horrible moment for Mark McNulty. The City keeper's dissing of Dundalk had featured so heavily in the build-up, it now felt like a dessert trolley bearing an extra large portion of humble pie was hurtling towards his table.

Yet teams do not become champions without good reason. It's possible to ride your luck and win a knockout competition but there are no undeserving league winners. At the Bridge, Chelsea held firm and as the first half progressed they wrested back control of the game.

With the chance of a breakthrough disappearing, the visitors scuttled back into their shell. The Blues would have led by the break but for a miss by Andreas Christensen which prevented this being a real red letter afternoon for Danish defenders.

By the start of the second half United's main offensive tactic was their favourite from last season, seeing who could kick Eden Hazard the hardest. Alvaro Morata's number 14-on-the-edge-of-the-square performance at centre-forward epitomised Chelsea's less cynical steeliness.

The header which put the home side ahead on the 55th minute was pure old-fashioned English centre-forward, a no-nonsense finish from a no-nonsense player.

Back in Dublin, another no-nonsense character was also coming up with the perfect finish. John Caulfield's canny introduction of Greg Bolger enabled City to gain control of midfield while another sub Achille Campion grabbed the goal nine minutes from time which levelled the game. After that only City looked likely extra-time winners. Dundalk were hanging on by the end.

Across the water, Chelsea looked like the only possible winners for the whole second half. Mourinho's introduction of Marouane Fellaini seemed a surrender to the vagaries of chance, like tossing a coin to see what you'll do next.

Chelsea's shakiness at the start was replaced by a familiar resolution and impregnability. On a day when Arsenal's biggest stars conspicuously downed tools at Eastlands, Chelsea's players gave their manager the only vote of confidence that matters.

Those who regard sport as some kind of moral proving ground would probably have been delighted had Mark McNulty come out on the wrong side of the penalty shoot-out at the Aviva.

Deserved But football is real life rather than cheap TV drama so instead McNulty emerged as the hero, his save from Michael Duffy giving City victory. The selection of the opposing 'keeper as man of the match underlined the extent to which the winners deserved both a second FAI cup in a row and the club's first ever double.

Cork's veteran 'keeper deserved his big moment. He'd taken too much self-righteous stick from people pretending they'd witnessed some extraordinary breach of ethics rather than a moment of exuberance not uncommon in a league where the bond between fans and players is particularly close. 2017 sometimes seems like The Great Year Of Not Lightening Up.

Rocked and rattled beforehand, Chelsea and Cork City came through with flying colours yesterday and will go on doing so for a while yet.

Champions do not abdicate, their crowns have to be prised from their hands. The dethronement process can take a long time, longer than a few games anyway. Yesterday both title-holders brought to mind the old quip by another garrulous Mark, Mr Twain of Hannibal, Missouri, about rumours of his death being greatly exaggerated.

The kings are not dead. Long live the kings.

Irish Independent

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