In the first part of a two articles on Cork City’s tumultuous 2019, Cian McGrath examines John Caulfield’s departure, John Cotter’s brief reign, and the Leesiders’ struggles in Europe.
As the 2018 League of Ireland season began, hopes were high on Leeside.
For the fourth successive year, Cork City were to face Dundalk in the President’s Cup, as many prepared for another tit for tat battle between the sides in the title race.
Most season previews had been quick to point to the loss of key players, such as Kieran Sadlier, Steven Beattie and Jimmy Keohane. Even John Caulfield himself seemingly keen to dampen the expectations, attempting to quell expectations due to the younger squad.
Supporters in Cork still looked at the positives, many experienced names had remained at the club, and exciting new signings like Daire O’Connor and Liam Nash whet the appetites of many.
Despite a reasonable performance, City fell to a 2-1 defeat that night, and it set the tone for the weeks that followed.
Two more defeats came in the league, including a ponderous 2-0 loss against Munster rivals Waterford, until a sudden upturn in form.
10 points came from 4 games, and City seemed to have their swagger back, before a narrow 1-0 reverse in Oriel Park.
Form once again nose-dived, and after failing register a league win in over 50 days, John Caulfield left Cork City by mutual consent.
Many had for a long-time bemoaned Caulfield’s style of play, but there could be no doubt but that he would go down as City’s most successful manager of all time.
At the time of Caulfield’s departure, City’s lack of goals was the most obvious concern.
Club Statement: John Caulfield leaves Cork City FC.
— Cork City FC (@CorkCityFC) May 1, 2019
After 15 games, City had scored just 10 times, with four of those coming in a 4-3 win over Finn Harps, and while no obvious goalscorer had emerged, it was not for want of trying.
During the opening months of the season, City had signed four new forward players, Dan Smith, Darragh Rainsford, Matty Gillam and Liam Nash. These four joined Graham Cummins, Cian Murphy, Cian Bargary and Karl Sheppard as a strike force, despite the fact that Caulfield’s sides largely lined out with just the one lone striker.
While Sheppard, Rainsford and Bargary were played regularly out wide, City clearly had an abundance of strikers in the squad, but very few goals in the team.
Towards the end of Caulfield’s tenure, City tested a 5-3-2 formation, which led to positive performances, but results were still lacking. This formation was seen again later in the season under John Cotter, but with similar results.
Once Caulfield left City, John Cotter was installed as Interim Head Coach, with Pro Licence Holder Frank Kelleher coming in a as Interim First Team Manager. Cotter also expanded his coaching team, promoting Alan Bennett, Colin Healy and Mick Punch as Assistant Coaches along with Liam Kearney, who held the role under Caulfield. It could be argued that this decision did very little to please either side of the Caulfield debate.
Some portions of the fans remained loyal to Caulfield and insisted he should never have left, while other supporters who had called for change felt that Cotter’s reign would merely serve as a continuation of Caulfield’s style and ethos.
Cotter would go on to lead City out for 18 games as the interim head coach, and while his City side would show flashes of change, the team often appeared to lack in ideas, direction and guidance on the field.
Cotter’s City won four of his 18 games in charge, but defeats in the Europa League, to Luxembourg side Progrés Niederkorn, and the FAI Cup, to struggling First Division side Galway United, meant that City were left with just a relegation battle to contest before the autumn hit.
The defeat to Niederkorn in Turner’s Cross turned out to be a particularly stinging one to the team’s confidence, as they fell to a 2-0 deficit early on, before Karl Sheppard’s tame penalty was saved. Once again, a slight lack of ideas was prevalent in this game, as City looked ponderous on the ball at times.
Disappointing night for Cork City as they lose out 0-2 to Progres Niederkorn in tonight’s UEFA Europa League First Qualifying Round 1st Leg.
— Sportsfile (@sportsfile) July 11, 2019
While some pride was restored in Luxembourg, the hopes of a potential clash with Scottish giant Glasgow Rangers were dashed as City crashed out 3-2 on aggregate.
City’s lack of attacking bite under Caulfield did not appear to have been remedied, with the Galway cup match proving the clearest evidence of this, as City failed to register a single shot on target, falling to a 1-0 defeat.
This game proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Cotter, as he was replaced by Neale Fenn the following day.
The loss of striker Graham Cummins (to Shamrock Rovers), centre-half Seán McLoughlin and playmaker James Tilley (returned to Brighton after his loan) no doubt hit Cotter’s City team hard, as summer signings Joel Coustrain and Eoghan Stokes failed to hit the ground running.
The return of Mark O’Sullivan from Avondale proved to be a successful one, both on and off the field, as he scored a stunning goal in the RSC to lead City to a 2-0 win, while cementing his place as a club legend with the fans.
It was not just Tilley and Cummins who left City mid-season, as large portion of the squad were purged post-Caulfield and during the early months Cotter’s era.
Nash, Smith and Gillam all returned to England, Garry Boylan, Darragh Rainsford, Shane Daly-Bütz, and John Kavanagh were released on a free transfer, along with Garry Comerford, who swapped sports to line out for Ballincollig in the Cork Senior Football Championship.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for City this season, as the squad was thinned younger players were required to step up to the challenge on more than one occasion.
Following a solid display in the President’s Cup, Dan Casey (signed from Bohemians) has been a rock at the back for the Leesiders under Cotter and Caulfield. While Casey’s long-ranged against his former side will live long in the memory for anyone present, his centre half partner Conor McCarthy is on course to end the season as City’s top scorer, one ahead of Daire O’Connor.
Often played as a right-back under Caulfield, McCarthy appears a lot more at home at the heart of the defence, no doubt he and Casey are learning from club legend Alan Bennett’s vast experience.
The largest take-away from the Cotter era however must be that there seemed to be a lack of clear direction, at least on the field. The game plan never appeared as coherent, with ponderous, patient play around the area easily snuffed out, a far cry from the piercing, direct play that had become the norm under Caulfield in previous seasons.
Issues off the field began to take centre-stage, culminating with RTÉ having to apologise for comments made on a podcast regarding the budgets at Cork City.
A breath of fresh air was needed, and it came with the appointment of a new coach on August 26th.