Wednesday 22 November 2017

David Kelly: It’s fantasy football for Rebel fans

Cork City manager John Caulfield. Photo by Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Cork City manager John Caulfield. Photo by Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

The rapture was promised for the weekend and still we wait for the world to end.

But in a small, fanatically devoted corner south of Cork City, theirs is only beginning. Football is a religion in Turner's Cross and tonight against Dundalk they could confirm their ascension into sporting heaven.

FORAS supporters showing their colours at Turner’s Cross. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile
FORAS supporters showing their colours at Turner’s Cross. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile

It has been a faltering finale - three defeats in six games - but their blistering beginning has given them just enough cushion to offset Dundalk's nine-game winning streak as the reigning champions head south.

"We have to play the game of our lives," a frustrated Cork boss John Caulfield said after Friday's 2-1 defeat to Limerick. "But these guys have done that all year."

A side that once played with the freedom of one that didn't want the season to end now seem desperate for it to finish; they are gripped by the sportsman's irrational fear of the finishing tape.

"In the last month or so we've slipped up a bit. We just have to get back to basics. It's going to be an incredibly difficult game, but these guys are able to do it if they put their minds to it," said Caulfield.

Former manager Tommy Dunne. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Former manager Tommy Dunne. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Crowned

The coronation will happen, maybe not tonight and maybe not here in Cork, but it is only a matter of when. However, any champion would so dearly love to be crowned in their home place.

And so, as fantasy prepares to shake hands with reality, a moment will be spared to recall the time when such a moment did not seem remotely possible.

Simply being in existence is the true miracle of this people's faith.

"It will probably be the proudest moment for soccer in this city," smiles Jerry Harris, as so many of the flock patiently thrum their fingers, awaiting the deliverance that follows from salvation.

Now retired, but a sprightly septuagenarian, Harris is an erstwhile stalwart of a variety of iterations of this club; he first attended the church of the beautiful game at the Mardyke in 1948.

His allegiance has tested his belief in so many ways. The original Cork City had died a death before he was born, begetting Cork FC and then United.

He saw the great Raich Carter play in the 1953 FAI Cup final for Cork Athletic. They expired as well.

So too Celtic. Hibs. Fordsons. For four years in the 1980s, there wasn't a club at all.

When City were relaunched in '84, Harris helped helm the good ship until, once more, it fatally listed in 2010.

The city folk's patience seemed to expire with it. The vox pops of the time betrayed a community seemingly prepared to accept the bitter pill; wanly expressing regret, as one might for a 40-a-day smoker wheezing his last cancerous cough.

Yet here they are, united in glory. The end to a remarkable tale of resilience and fortitude, but, more than that, the beginning of a story that will thrive upon rigorous self-reliance allied to bottomless fanaticism.

It should be easy for the supporters and owners to dovetail their ambitions, for the supporters are now the owners of the club.

City's may have been a familiar League of Ireland tale of boom and bust, but this new chapter promises no more valleys and peaks, simply blue sky. The only plot twists now will be those that occur on the field.

To end up here, they had to start so near the bottom they were almost through the floor. Typically, for a League of Ireland club at least, they had been dancing on the ceiling just a few years earlier.

In 2005 they won the league for only the second time in their modern existence. Five years later, on February 23, they were put to sleep in a Dublin court. Heaven and Hell.

Anticipated

But this time they refused to die. A day earlier, a committed group of supporters, collectively calling themselves FORAS - Friends of the Rebel Army Society - had anticipated the termination of life support and formed a trust to run whatever club they had left.

"If a club needs a trust, it is almost always too late," says former board member Niamh O'Mahony.

"But we had only nine days to form a football club."

Now relegated to the second tier, they pitched up with then manager Tommy Dunne for a fixture in the Brandywell against Derry City.

"It was the longest bus journey of our lives," recalls Harris.

Only 12 fit players travelled - and they drew 1-1.

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny, as fate would have it, was in the opposition dugout, as he will be tonight.

"There was a sense of being humiliated, we had nothing with us, but pride too that at least we were there, we had survived," adds Harris.

City needed to do more than survive that year. The First Division is a financial parasite and the club may not have survived more than a year in it.

Ninety-three minutes into their final league game against Shelbourne, they seemed doomed to remain there and, potentially, face the threat of extinction once more.

Then Graham Cummins scored in the 94th minute.

"It was the most euphoric moment of my life," says Dave Barry - the same Dave Barry who won two All-Ireland football medals with Cork, scored the lead goal in a UEFA Cup tie against Bayern Munich and won the FAI Cup.

Tommy Dunne deserves much credit for steering Cork back into the top tier, where they could breath once more. Slowly, surely, the club was reaching into the light.

"Listen, we'd taken soccer for granted and in the '80s you wondered whether it would ever come back at all," says Barry.

"It's even harder these days so the work the FORAS people did was just amazing."

FORAS, unlike their predecessors, with unsustainable promises of €30m stadia, run the club like a credit union or agricultural co-op. Every cent is accountable. And so is every board member.

Supporters pay €10 a month. The seven board members must be re-elected every three years and they have a legal obligation to provide education opportunities and underage football. The AGM is open to all and accounts are completely transparent.

"It's as much about finding the best energy supplier as it is about finding the best players," explains O'Mahony of City, who now have 500 fully engaged members.

Half the Premier Division are also owned and run by supporters including its most famous name, Shamrock Rovers.

The phenomenon is growing pace in Europe. Bundesliga outfit Schalke, with 144,000 members, are the largest. Malmo have visited Cork to swap ideas.

O'Mahony now works for SD Europe, an EU-funded body which helps organise supporters seeking to become member/owners or at least attain some structural involvement with their clubs.

"It's funny, you have this idea of a supporter running a club being a dream, but the reality is so different," she says.

"A natural instinct would just be to buy every player you can but that's what got everyone into trouble in the past."

The playing budget is finite, but average crowds topping 4,000 - build stability and they will come - has ensured a steady, reliable income stream with which to strengthen the squad.

Also, the hundreds of thousands now guaranteed for European qualification, a bounty that never existed until a few short years ago, can massively boost the chances of balancing a budget.

Since Dunne's departure, John Caulfield, the club's all-time leading goalscorer, has come in as manager and, after chasing Dundalk for three seasons, this is his moment, too.

"I'd say some wanted a big name to come in," says Barry of his friend and former team-mate. Fifty-two people had applied for the post.

Brilliant

"We all knew he had the talent from junior football, but a few heads would have been on the block if it didn't work out. But he has been brilliant.

"Listen, he's a former sales rep so it wouldn't bother him to do a 600-mile round trip to sign a player.

"He had his critics but winning the Cup was a huge thing. It would have been easy to drop off given what Dundalk had done, head to the bar and drown your sorrows. But he and the team have been relentless."

Caulfield and Cork have also harnessed the city's historic second city syndrome; Dundalk's Europa League exploits overshadowed them, but even this season they have faced criticism of their style of play.

Losing Seán Maguire, the metronomic goalscorer, to Preston, has seen them stutter in recent months after an astonishing, goal-laden 21-game unbeaten streak at the start of the season backboned their title-winning run.

"They have struggled a bit," admits Barry, who was on RTE duty as Limerick stunned Caulfield's men with that 2-1 win at a heaving Markets Field.

"It's like they're 1-0 up with 10 minutes to go and keeping the ball in the corner. They are having difficulty getting over the line, but you saw the way Dundalk started this season, how difficult it is to accommodate the loss of key players.

"Seanie's departure affected them and that will be the challenge now as they keep progressing. Dundalk managed to regenerate for a while, but it gets harder and harder each season as even they found out."

There have been criticisms of style, too, particularly relevant given that City will also now have an eye on emulating Dundalk's European successes of late.

Not uncharacteristically, City folk take a dim view of outsiders' perceptions. Indeed, Caulfield's spikiness towards the media and, often, his managerial rivals, has intensified the togetherness of a club - and place - that has always thrived on a siege mentality as much as a confident sense of entitlement.

"I saw them beat Dundalk 3-0 and everyone is talking about long balls," scoffs Barry, who never threatened to hit a passing seagull with his deliveries. "Dundalk played as many!"

They could have confirmed their title last Friday but, when this club could have disappeared for a lifetime, what's another few days?

They don't mind waiting. But they can't stand still.

"They need to take two steps forward for every one back now," adds Barry.

"It's about managing expectations," cautions O'Mahony.

Now is only the beginning.

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