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‘There was tension around the match...Stephen Kenny didn’t come into our dressing-room to congratulate us’

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Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny shakes hands with Cork City manager John Caulfield before the Cup final in 2016

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny shakes hands with Cork City manager John Caulfield before the Cup final in 2016

John Caulfield - Rebel Heart

John Caulfield - Rebel Heart

Cork City manager John Caulfield celebrates with Sean Maguire after Cup win in 2016

Cork City manager John Caulfield celebrates with Sean Maguire after Cup win in 2016

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Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny shakes hands with Cork City manager John Caulfield before the Cup final in 2016

In this extract from John Caulfield’s brilliant autobiography ‘RebelHeart’, Cork City’s record appearance holder, record goalscorer and most successful manager of all time revisits his sideline battles with Stephen Kenny.

IN THE FIRST game of the 2016 season, we played Dundalk in the President’s Cup at Turner’s Cross. We won 2-0. Gavan Holohan and Seáni scored for us.

The game was significant for City for a couple of reasons. It was the first time we beat Dundalk during my time as manager. And, Seáni scored against the team that had let him go a few months beforehand.

And I think Dundalk realised... These guys are going to be a serious team.

As I’ve said, before I took over at Cork City, I wouldn’t have known Stephen Kenny, our paths had never crossed. He started coaching with Longford Town when he was young and he did very well everywhere he had been, other than at Shamrock Rovers.

I think Stephen felt hard done by at the end of his Rovers’ exit, and he was. Rovers were based in Tallaght, he was from Tallaght and he had said it was the club where he wanted to be.

I don’t know what happened behind the scenes – I wasn’t even a manager in the league at the time.

He then went to Dundalk and, a bit like me with Cork, he took over at a club with huge history which was on its knees. And he brought them up the table. He was building his team and I think, with Dundalk, he wanted to prove Rovers wrong.

I think he wanted to win, and win and win, and show them how wrong they were. Dundalk were in position to dominate when the St Patrick’s Athletic team of 2013 and ’14 disintegrated quickly.

We were second to them in 2014, when no one really thought we would do anything. But we stuck around and, going into 2016, we had improved our team. When we beat them in the President’s Cup, you could see then that we were probably getting a little too close for comfort... in Stephen’s books. As the season went on, and he kept scoring, the Seáni thing probably annoyed him too.

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At matches in 2014 and ’15, when we played Dundalk, Stephen and I would have had a chat before and after games. Now, we weren’t friends, we would never have gone for a pint and we were very different people, different personalities. But there was a respect there.

After Dundalk beat us in the FAI Cup final in 2015, when they won the double, I went into their dressing-room at the Aviva Stadium and congratulated them.

They were the better team, so it was the right thing to do. From the President’s Cup game in 2016 on though, there was barely any communication between Stephen and myself, bar shaking hands before and after games.

We became a thorn in the side of Dundalk. It’s fair to say, I believe, that Stephen liked me a lot more when they were beating us all the time

****

THE AVIVA HAD over 26,000 at the (2016 FAI Cup final)– our fans took up the whole South Stand behind the goal. There were no local matches in Cork that day, so clubs from all over the city and county took buses full of supporters up to the match. I said to the lads before the game, ‘Look at our crowd out there, they’ve all got up at six this morning to make their way up here to support you!’

It meant a lot to us.

It was a very tight, cagey game. There weren’t a lot of chances, but we had the better openings.

McNulty made a brilliant save from David McMillan when he was through on goal. Chiedozie Ogbene had a chance for us near the end to win it after Seáni squared it to him in the box, but Gary Rogers saved his shot.

There was nothing between the teams again and the game went to extra time, where there was still no separating us. There were a couple of half-chances for each team, but it looked set to go to penalties.

We got a throw-in near Dundalk’s goal in stoppage time in extra time. It was going to be the last action of the match. There were 40 seconds left on the clock and that was it... it was going to penalties.

Beattie took the throw and got a good distance on it.

Two Dundalk players went to attack it, but Mark O'Sullivan headed it on. The ball bounced outside the six-yard box and landed with Seáni.

The ball bounced up. Seáni swivelled and turned. Brian Gartland came across and got his body in the way. Seáni swung and shot with his left foot, but he didn’t get a clean connection.

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Cork City manager John Caulfield celebrates with Sean Maguire after Cup win in 2016

Cork City manager John Caulfield celebrates with Sean Maguire after Cup win in 2016

Cork City manager John Caulfield celebrates with Sean Maguire after Cup win in 2016

The ball hit off Gartland’s leg and deflected the other way. Rogers was rooted to the line.

The ball rolled over the line... into the far corner. He had scored. The Cork fans erupted. Flares went off. It was a haze of red and green smoke. We were celebrating on the bench. The City players mobbed Seáni.

The Dundalk players were on their knees. We thought that was it, the last kick of the game. But the match went on beyond the one minute of stoppage time and Dundalk got a free-kick in our half.

Three minutes into stoppage time. Rogers came up for it and Horgan knocked it into the box. Their header went over the bar and the ref, finally, blew the whistle. The Cork end exploded again. The Dundalk players collapsed onto the ground.

The lads spilled off our bench and started celebrating with the players on the pitch. I went sprinting down the sideline as fast as I could towards the City supporters. The passion, the joy... the relief !

It is difficult to overstate the significance of that moment. Cork City came from nowhere three years earlier, when there were five players on the books and the club in debt. We got the crowds back, got the passion back and rebuilt the squad twice. We missed out in 2014 and '15. Got back in Europe. But we were written off and overlooked.

We kept coming back, kept looking for ways to improve. There was serious pressure on us because we were missing the big trophy, the big day, that would show how far we had come. And finally, we got it.

Here we were, winning the FAI Cup for just the third time in the club’s history, the first time in nine years. The Cork end was packed, there was brilliant team spirit in the squad, and we won it in the most dramatic, memorable way possible. It was fairytale stuff.

Not only that, but we also stopped Dundalk, the team that some were saying was the best to ever play in the League of Ireland, from winning a double-double. There was tension around the match. At this point, the rivalry between Cork City and Dundalk, between Stephen Kenny and myself, between the two squads and the two sets of supporters, was massive.

There was a mutual respect, but it had developed into a grudge match. Stephen didn’t come into our dressing-room to congratulate us, as I had with Dundalk the previous year.

The two teams were incredibly well-matched. It took until the very last minute for us to be separated. It was amazing that it was Seáni who was the one to score the goal too.

He came to us when he was at his lowest point for confidence. It was like a light bulb lit up in his head when he came to us and he realised... I need to get things going, get this right.

Seáni probably just ended up in the right place at the right time, and that was it. The cup final goal against Dundalk was his 29th goal of the season. Only for it actually happened, it would have been too good of a story to be true.

****

THERE WERE TIMES in the 2017 season when I’d be driving home to West Cork in the car going to myself... I didn’t even have to say anything to them!

We were that good from the very first kick of the ball that year. We played Dundalk in the President’s Cup at Turner's Cross and battered them 3-0. Seáni Maguire, Kevin O’Connor and Karl Sheppard scored for us. We were on a roll.

We played Dundalk at Turner’s Cross in the sixth game of the season on a Saturday afternoon. The Cross was absolutely packed, there was nearly 7,000 there and we would’ve got many more in if there was more space.

At half-time, we were two up, Karl Sheppard scored both. We just tore straight into them, didn’t give them a second on the ball. Conor McCormack shut down Patrick McEleney brilliantly in the middle of the park, something we identified during the week in our video analysis. Conor didn’t give him a chance to play.

We were deadly when we broke forward then, so clinical. For our first goal, Stephen Dooley, Seáni and Shep all linked up in a great counter-attack. Seáni and Shep then combined for the second goal. We ended up winning 2-1 and fully deserved it.

City were top of the table with six wins from six games, six points clear of Dundalk, with 15 goals in those games.

I joined Cork City as a player in 1986. I was there during the good times, the bad times, and the very bad times. I was there when we had great team spirit, and when we were on our knees. And I watched on as a supporter when the club had success and when Cork City almost went extinct.

I saw it all with the club.

It was quite clear, in 2017, that this was a special team, and it was a special time in the club’s history.

Seáni got the glory, but it wasn’t just him that made the difference for us. Our front three of Seáni, Karl Sheppard and Stephen Dooley were incredible. The movement and interplay were just brilliant, teams couldn’t live with them.

****

THE INTEREST IN Seáni never went away. But, as I had said to him a few months earlier, this time it would be from a Championship club... not League One or Two. Not long after the Dundalk game, in maybe the first or second week of April, Seáni’s agent rang and said that Preston North End wanted to do a deal.

Peter Ridsdale, who was an advisor to the club’s owner and had previously been Leeds United chairman, rang me and said they wanted to sign Seáni. The English market is controlled by agents, so deals are usually done before you know it.

So, as far as we knew, personal terms had already been agreed between the player and the club. It was a question of what the transfer fee would be. Our hand was strengthened because we could block the deal – well, not completely block it, because you can’t stop a player progressing to a higher level. The transfer release clause was €150,000, plus add-ons.

And the transfer market didn’t open again until July 1. We had some bargaining chips. There were a few meetings with Ridsdale. Pat Lyons, the club chairman, and Seán Ó Conaill, the club’s solicitor, were also there. There were a few arguments with Ridsdale over the fee. He was a nice man, but, of course, he wanted to try and get the best deal for Preston. Their opening offer was €100,000.

I said, ‘No chance!’ City were looking for €200,000. In the end, after some posturing and nonsense arguments, we agreed on €150,000, with another €25,000 after Seáni played 20 games for Preston. There was also a sell-clause where Cork would get 15 percent of his next transfer. It took 40 minutes to agree on the transfer fee, but it could have been settled in 40 seconds! Afterwards, there were some people saying we should have got more money for Seáni given his form.

But, at the end of the day, you’re dealing with a person, a good person, who had put his trust in me and the club. Seáni could have left for nothing at the end of 2016. He cost us nothing and he was unbelievable from the day he signed for Cork City. He was on his third contract with us and had the chance to earn 15 times more with Preston and play at a higher level.

There was no way the club or I could stand in Seáni’s way. It was about getting the best deal possible, which I felt we did. All that was left was to agree on was when Seáni would leave City for Preston. Ridsdale said, ‘Well, we need him to join us the second week of July because we’ll be over in Cork for pre-season'.

That wasn’t going to work for us because we needed Seáni for the European games at the start of July.

In 2016, we had done incredibly well in Europe and reached the third round of the Europa League. We needed Seáni there for as long as we could keep him.

We agreed that Seáni would join Preston on July 24, which was a Monday.

So, as soon we shook hands on the deal, I thought to myself... I need to bring some games forward. I wanted us to play as many games as possible for as long as we had Seáni.

****

CORK CITY WON the first 12 games of the season.

Seáni scored 11 goals in those 12 games. He was phenomenal, unstoppable, just a level above every player in the league.

City were hammering everyone we came up against.

I remember sitting at matches and we’d be three-up with 10 minutes to go, and I’m going... This is just great!

I couldn’t get enough games on the board before July, when we were due to lose Seáni. We needed to get as many points as possible to hold our lead over Dundalk.

In the 13th game of the season, we draw away to Galway United... 1-1. It was frustrating for us because Galway got relegated that year. They had a good team but would go and drop points against Bray Wanderers and UCD after giving us a game.

After the Galway result, City beat Drogheda United 5-0 at the Cross. We beat Sligo Rovers the following week 2-1 and then beat Shamrock Rovers 4-1 at home.

Gearóid Morrisey scored a fantastic goal that night, a wonderful strike from about 25 yards out. Gearóid was probably the most naturally talented and skilful player within the group. He played in the middle of the park and was strong with both feet, great in the air and tremendously fast over 10 and 15 yards.

The following week, we went to Oriel Park to play Dundalk for the last game before the mid-season break. We were 15 points clear. If we won the game, we’d be 18 points clear at the halfway mark of the season.

It was a beautiful summer’s evening. The ground was packed, and we brought up a big crowd of supporters with us. Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, the Ireland management team, were at the game, possibly scouting Seáni. Some people might have thought Cork were going to play for a draw in the match. But we never approached games like that.

We were confident and we felt we had Dundalk’s number. In the last seven games between City and Dundalk, we won six.

Seáni came close with a shot after about 20 seconds; he hit the side netting. I remember there was still smoke from the flares on the pitch, Dundalk hadn’t touched the ball, and we had already nearly scored. We were that dangerous.

Our first goal was a classic City move from that season. There was some intricate play between Dooley and Maguire at the edge of the box. Dools played it out wide for Sheppard, who squared it into the box. Seáni got free in the box, timed his run and finished it past Rogers. It was top class stuff from start to finish.

For our second, Johnny Dunleavy took a very clever, quick throw, firing it against Shep’s back! He then curled a cross into the box. Seáni got away from his man and scored with a deft header.

In the last minute, the ball bounced free in the Dundalk box and Seáni slotted it away. We had gone away to Dundalk and won 3-0. Seáni got a hat-trick, his first for the club, against the team that let him go, the team who had been our nearest rivals.

It was incredible.

I was pinching myself afterwards, going back down the road to Cork, thinking to myself... We’re 18 points clear!

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John Caulfield - Rebel Heart

John Caulfield - Rebel Heart

John Caulfield - Rebel Heart

‘RebelHeart by John Caulfield (with Robert Redmond) is published by Hero Books and is available in all good book stores (priced €20.00). The book is also available on amazon.com for League of Ireland fans throughout the world as a printed book or ebook.


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