Sunday 17 December 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Patience pays off on Leeside as Cork blow record book to pieces through sheer self-belief

Hold The Back Page

Cork's Sean Maguire. Photo: Sportsfile
Cork's Sean Maguire. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

What a week of publicity that was for the League of Ireland. And to think people say the media has no interest in domestic soccer.

However, diverting and all though the Elmore Leonard novel-type goings on in the Midlands are, something just as interesting was going on in Cork, where the 5-0 win over Finn Harps left Cork City with 12 wins from 12 league games and a 14-point lead at the top.

It's hard to overstate the achievement this perfect dozen represents in a league which is not short of quality. A four-in-a-row-chasing Dundalk may have lost some of their sparkle but they remain a formidable outfit. Shamrock Rovers started shakily but have an excellent team. There is a dangerous Bray Wanderers outfit, a more-than-useful Derry City and a general increase in competitiveness resulting from the fact that this year three out of the 12 teams will be relegated. There are tricky away trips and grounds which are not of the highest quality. The snapping of the run in Friday's 1-1 draw at Galway United just shows how remarkable it was.

Cork have been utterly dominant. The 34 goals they've bagged in their first 13 games puts them on course to break the all-time record of 78 set by Dundalk two years ago. And the mere six they've conceded so far gives them a shot at beating a perhaps even more difficult mark, the 13 conceded by Bohemians when winning the 2008 title.

There's a lot of work to be done yet of course. But if the league is a marathon rather than a sprint, then Cork already seem to be more than half-way to the finish while their rivals have yet to tog out.

Even Dundalk, probably the best team to have played in the league, never looked this dominant. That's because they always had Cork nibbling at their heels. Three years in a row John Caulfield's team were fated to be runners-up to the most feted League of Ireland team in living memory. Their frustration was at times palpable. But perhaps the challenge posed by Dundalk forced Cork to such heights in response that, when the champions finally did weaken, a kind of perfect footballing storm was unleashed.

Cork's extraordinary run represents above all else the triumph of patience. Sean Maguire (pictured), overcoming past frustrations both here and in England, is a perfect example. But so is Conor McCormack, who six years ago played such a key role in Shamrock Rovers' historic progress to the Europa League group stages and league title win you'd have sworn the former Manchester United youth player would be soon be back cross channel.

The years since have been frustrating for the midfielder, who has rarely been able to recapture the form of 2011. Chances are that when he signed at the start of the season Cork fans regarded him as a useful squad player rather than a key cog in a title-winning machine. Yet McCormack has been outstanding as midfield anchor man and has just been rewarded with the Player of the Month award for April. Still just 26, he looks back to his best.

A year and a half ago, Gearoid Morrissey suffered the humiliation of being let go by Division Two's Cambridge United. Players have been crushed by this kind of experience in the past yet Morrissey has been superb since his return to Cork. Whatever Cambridge think, the player could comfortably hold his own in English football - as indeed could his midfield partner, the superb Garry Buckley. Buckley broke into the City first team around the same time as Brian Lenihan and looked a good bet to follow his fellow youngster to the big time. The move never happened but England's loss is Cork's gain.

Karl Sheppard is an undoubtedly gifted striker who has sometimes seemed to be the embodiment of unfulfilled potential. Until this season that is. And if Ryan Delaney was disappointed to be loaned back to the league so soon after his move from Wexford Youths to Burton Albion, he hasn't shown it. The 20-year-old has been the crucial defensive addition for John Caulfield.

Caulfield has been the most patient of them all. There have been occasional doubts expressed on Leeside about his inability to overhaul Dundalk but the manager has always given the impression of both believing in and knowing what he's doing. On the night they made it 12 in a row I read an interview with him from three years ago as he prepared for his first game as boss. Back then Caulfield declared: "We want it so that Cork guys stay in Cork and play in Cork, that when you walk down Patrick's Street everyone will know you, and that when you go to Turner's Cross there will be 7,000 people."

They're getting there.

When sport spoils and distorts a whole nation

It's a long time since I've read an article about sport as good and illuminating as 'Spoiling Sport', written by Josh Raymond, a rowing coach turned freelance writer, which appeared in last week's Times Literary Supplement.

The thrust of the article is that the massive British investment in the pursuit of Olympic glory betrays the spirit of sport.

He reveals, for example, that despite all the talk of Olympic triumphs "inspiring a generation", participation in sport has actually gone down since London 2012. And he wonders, "could all the sense of hubris over Britain's sporting success even have had a small effect on the country's decision to quit the EU, along with its more recent bullishness in pursuing a 'hard Brexit'?" Yes, is probably the answer.

The distorting effect of big money is one of the two big curses on sport. Nationalistic jingoism, to which we're not immune over here, is the other. Combined, they make a poisonous cocktail.

Josh Raymond's piece is on the TLS website. Read it if you get a chance. It's a brilliant piece of work.

* * * * *

Last year saw the sad spectacle of no Canadian club qualifying for the 16-team play-offs in the National Hockey League. It was a signal humiliation for the country which is the spiritual home of ice hockey and still takes it more seriously than anywhere else.

But perhaps the 2016 whitewash served as a necessary kick in the ass for the clubs from the sane bit of North America.

This time around five of them made the play-offs, and last night the last remaining Canadian side, the Ottawa Senators, began an Eastern Conference final series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Should they win, they'll get a chance to become the first Canadian winners of the Stanley Cup since 1993. The Senators haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1927 but, inspired by the goals of local boy Jean-Gabriel Pageau, they have every chance this year.

* * * * *

Fair play to World Rugby for increasing the residency period required for a change of international allegiance from three to five years. Hopefully some day they'll close the loophole altogether.

However, the change won't happen till 2020, so there's still time to sneak in a couple more players who'll prove their indomitable Irishness by learning the words of the national anthem.

Meanwhile, in other opportunism news, the FAI have apparently contacted Celtic in a bid to secure the services of the club's latest wonderboy Mikey Johnston.

The 18-year-old winger recently made his Celtic debut, has played for Scotland at under 19 level and would only qualify for Ireland through his grandparents. But here we are, on the scrounge again. Beats working harder to promote domestic soccer, I suppose.

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