Monday 11 November 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'One title, two cups followed by a relegation battle - what has happened to Cork City?'

Former Cork boss John Caulfield. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Former Cork boss John Caulfield. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The lessons of history will always put any crisis for Cork City in perspective.

Neal Horgan's latest book has been in the news this week, and the ex-City defender shines a light on how the fan-owned club rose from the ashes of a failed entity to give life to the game on Leeside again.

An interview with Sonya O'Neill, a prominent member of supporters group FORAS that somehow cobbled a team together for their opening match in 2010, detailed the chaotic nature of that historic away day in Derry.

"It looked like we hadn't enough players at one stage," she says in The Cross Roads. "But we were able to get a few more at the last minute and, in the end, 15 players travelled to Derry on a bus that was christened 'the golf buggy'.

"It was a very small bus, to be fair, and it didn't have a toilet. I remember Eanna (Buckley - the club administrator) meeting us as we arrived and telling us two registrations hadn't gone through so we only had 13 players - two of whom were goalkeepers."

City survived and thrived across a decade that peaked with a double in 2017 under John Caulfield, the man whose arrival brought things to a completely different level.

Direction

But questions hang over the direction of the Turner's Cross outfit heading into the 2020s. After five years of challenging for the league and four successive FAI Cup final appearances, a grim campaign ends in Tallaght tonight.

Back-to-back wins over UCD and champions Dundalk staved off the remarkable threat of a relegation scrap and have improved the points tally and the standing of new boss Neale Fenn, but the fact remains that Cork are 46 points behind Dundalk and 35 off Rovers.

It's a dramatic drop and there is a story that highlights the extreme contrast between the 'golf buggy' days and now, and why there was a need to take stock. Cork City have an arrangement with a local company, Bodychef, that deliver food to the training ground on a daily basis.

The deal was based on the traditional squad size but earlier this season, there were so many first team players on the books - with a number of short-term English arrivals bolstering a bloated panel - that it became apparent that the food order wasn't sufficient to feed the group adequately.

Ambitious crowd projections set by the old board shaped budgetary plans and a new regime that came in at the turn of the year inherited a situation which screamed that cutbacks were necessary.

Money from qualification for the Champions League in 2018 was put into the playing budget and, ultimately, it was substandard recruitment that put Caulfield on a sticky wicket. Relations with a couple of long-serving squad members also soured.

More pertinently, Caulfield also didn't enjoy a strong rapport with the leading voices on a younger board that clearly believed they weren't getting value from their outlay, pointing to the large number of players in the stand every weekend.

Caulfield's supporters would say he wasn't given the ammunition to go after the league's best, but that view is contested internally with chairman Declan Carey responding to criticism by stating that their budget for playing and backroom staff was only cut by three to four per cent this year.

"Unfortunately that (Champions League) money was primarily invested in the squad and to keep us as competitive as we could and it didn't work out that way," says Carey.

Cork's failure to qualify for Europe leaves a €240,000 hole in their budget and it's going to place pressure on the club's commercial strength and fundraising capabilities. An innovative 'win a gaff' partnership with Kinsale AFC and Douglas GAA could prove to be worth a six-figure sum to the club. They'll need more of that.

Crucially, they need Fenn's appointment to work as the Cork public's support is vital. They went for Fenn as he is associated with an attractive style of play, but results matter.

There is a view around the league that the Leesiders were too hasty in parting ways with Caulfield. Shamrock Rovers boss Stephen Bradley said as much yesterday.

"If John was still in charge, I don't think they would be where they are," he said. "They acted very early on that one. I'm sure they will come back strong but I am surprised by where they are because while they did lose a few, their core group of players is strong and experienced."

Ironically enough, it's understood that the Cork board are admirers of the Rovers model and feel that producing young players with a sell-on value should form the basis of a strategy for the coming years. Ex-player Colin Healy is driving that area and is extending his stay.

Potential

Cork transitioned to a proper full-time 52-week structure under Caulfield and while they have four players under contract on those terms, they are speaking to potential new signings about 40-42 week arrangements.

Overall, a budget cut is on the cards - the hope is that working off a smaller squad will soften any impact.

Stalwarts such as Conor McCormack and Karl Sheppard are expected to move on, with Derry and clubs in Dublin on their trail. Fenn will shop around in search of younger players looking to make their name, with Cabinteely's Rob Manley one player believed to be on the radar.

The imminent investment of Dermot Desmond in Rovers and Dundalk's strong position due to their US backers means Cork will find it hard to compete in the short term, but Carey remains optimistic about 2020.

"It wouldn't be hard to progress from where we are," he quips. "Given the conversations I've had with Neale, I'm very optimistic about the type of players he is looking at. I'm confident about what we can do. We're definitely looking at top three, top four next season."

The stability of the next decade is dependent on a solid start.

Irish Independent

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