Loss of Maguire leaves Leesiders limping over line
Goals and wins have dried up alarmingly for Cork City since departure of inspirational striker to Preston North End, writes Daniel McDonnell
The timing means that if Cork City are crowned champions at Turner's Cross tomorrow night, the reaction will be lost in the coverage of the World Cup play-off draw earlier in the day.
But there's a topical connection, too, as the pivotal figure in their success now has reason to be also monitoring events in Switzerland.
Sean Maguire was given a rousing reception when he made his Ireland debut against Moldova last Friday week on his return to the venue where he scored the winner for the Leesiders in last November's FAI Cup final.
That was a key game in Cork's 2017 title charge - just not in the way they envisaged.
Granted, it gave Cork the belief they could get one over on Dundalk and they carried that into this season. But there was a twist for Maguire as an uninspiring performance made Preston think twice about making a move for his services. The watching Martin O'Neill was unconvinced, too.
With the striker in limbo, John Caulfield was able to sign Maguire for another year and that was the moment which propelled Cork towards glory.
Hurricane Ophelia has delayed their latest crack at a coronation with the visit of Derry pushed back by 24 hours. Derry were already on their way to Cork for the rescheduled Monday night date when the decision was confirmed - their manager Kenny Shiels had called for a switch to Tuesday and his wish was granted.
It was the sensible decision.
Maguire will be watching from Preston, having raised his game to another level during his final season with Cork.
The results were spectacular, with the 23-year-old hitting a goalscoring streak which made it inevitable that English clubs would come calling in the summer, especially with a £150,000 (€170,000) break clause in his contract.
Preston came knocking again, but crucially Cork managed to negotiate to delay the striker's departure.
The move was announced in early June after he destroyed Dundalk but he was still scoring league goals for Cork on July 16.
He reached the 20-goal mark for the campaign, which is record-breaking pace on the Irish scene, by inspiring a victory away to Bray.
We now know that Maguire had improved to the point where the transition to the Championship was seamless; he struck again for Preston against Fulham on Saturday and made another before leaving the pitch at Craven Cottage with an injury that is hopefully only a temporary setback.
For Cork to have a front man of that quality for so long is the main reason they are only a point from the holy grail with three matches left to go. Their struggles without him back that up.
When he departed, Cork had a record of 20 wins and one draw in the league.
In their nine Premier Division games since then, they've won only three (against the three sides currently in the relegation zone), drawn two and lost four.
And remarkably, they haven't scored more than a goal in any match against top-flight opposition since the end of July.
Maguire was about more than his own goals; his strong running and link play created them for others. In last Friday's dull, scoreless draw away to Bohemians, they lacked that all-round package. The drop-off minus Maguire is only natural. Kevin O'Connor also went to Preston and John Dunleavy was lost to a season-ending injury.
Dundalk struggled desperately in the first half of 2017 as they coped without Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle and Ronan Finn. Cork encountered that same problem mid-stream in addition to the pressure of ending a 12-year wait for the title.
Caulfield has noted a return of defensive steel in recent weeks; it helped them get past Limerick to set up another FAI Cup final with Dundalk.
When the Lilywhites visited Turner's Cross last month and had a real chance to make things interesting, Cork were the better side. The other key components in their imminent success shone through.
Conor McCormack, a key signing from Derry over the winter, starred in a shielding role and should be fit to come into the fray tomorrow.
Veteran centre-half Alan Bennett is also an assured presence when available - the 36-year-old was absent for large parts of the blip.
After the anti-climax at Dalymount, Caulfield said he took heart from the resolve in the City half.
"We went back to basics, defended brilliantly and kept the shape and in fairness you need those things to win a league too," said Caulfield.
"That's what we wouldn't have done three or four weeks ago. Now we are back to proper defending."
Greg Bolger shrugged off a suggestion that a lack of goals was a concern, although his words brought Maguire to mind again.
"We didn't create much against Bohs but look at Limerick when we got beaten 2-1. I think we created six, seven or maybe even eight chances but couldn't score. Hopefully someone will be a hero against Derry."
With Maguire in their ranks, City had an obvious candidate. Ironically, they've managed to crawl towards the title in a manner which has exposed the area that must be strengthened if they are to successfully defend it.
The hosts should get it done tomorrow and have earned the celebration.
It will mean the world to the supporters who have known problems that pale in comparison with the protracted finish to a memorable year.
If this is their moment, they will all be raising a glass to an absent friend.