Cork City 2019 | Neale Fenn, greenshoots and a look to next season

In the concluding part of his two-part article analysing Cork City’s turbulent 2019, Cian McGrath examines Neale Fenn’s impact and looks ahead to next season.

Neale Fenn took over City on the 26th of August, left his old side Longford in acrimonious circumstances, leaving the side battling in the promotion play-offs, as was seen in the stands at the FAI Cup game against Galway.

Fenn, known for the attractive brand of football that he played at Longford, was keen to impress, and made all of the right noises upon his arrival, describing the club as ‘the biggest in Ireland’.

Fenn took no prisoners in describing what he saw in Galway as unacceptable and highlighted a lack of confidence as one of the key problem areas he aimed to fix.

While Fenn welcomed him to stay in his press conference, John Cotter departed the club in the days that followed, leaving the club after 6 years as a part of the management team.

From the beginning of his reign, Neale Fenn was keen on focusing on the youth players that he had at his disposal, including 5 academy graduates in the squad for his first game.

Alec Byrne has been given ample opportunity to impress under his new boss and has performed admirably in a role sitting at the base of a midfield three.

He has played in all but one match since the defeat away to Dundalk on September 6th, taking chances on the ball and turning out some fantastic performances far beyond his years.

Debuts have also been given to Josh Honohan, who started at right-back in the 4-2 defeat to Sligo at the Cross, and Beineon O’Brien-Whitmarsh, City’s U19 top scorer.

O’Brien Whitmarsh, the 11th striker that City have played this season, started each of City’s last three league games.

To say that this was a baptism of fire is an understatement, for a rookie to the first team, a lot has been asked of him.

Between coming deep to link with the breaking midfield, while also offering an out-ball over the top, O’Brien Whitmarsh’s pace and athleticism has been put to the test, particularly against an experienced Dundalk centre half pairing of Seán Hoare and Andy Boyle.

His runs to drag defences apart have been instrumental for both of Daire O’Connor’s goals in Fenn’s two wins, with O’Brien Whitmarsh registering the assist with an inch perfect pass for the winner against Dundalk.

A lot is to be expected of anyone playing as the leading striker for Cork City, but O’Brien Whitmarsh clearly has the talent needed, should he find his rhythm and get his name on the scoresheet.

The focus of Fenn’s job was clear from the get-go, no matter how much City fans wish it was not the case, staying in the Premier Division.

Three losses in his first three games showed the job at hand for Fenn, and despite a draw at home to relegation rivals Finn Harps, Fenn would go on to lose five of his first six games in charge.

That being said, there were green shoots of positivity coming up at Turner’s Cross.

Fenn became more and more sure of his first team, and taking no prisoners in criticising the team as a collective, particularly after a late collapse in a 2-1 home loss to Waterford.

The 3-2 win against UCD was a long time coming for Fenn’s Rebel Army, but the change in style was evident, and many at the Cross were beginning to see the ‘FennyBall’ that they had been promised.

A more settled side started against UCD, and goals from Karl Sheppard, Daire O’Connor and Conor McCormack, who filled in at right back for City, saw the Leesiders pick up their first win in nearly two months, to guarantee their place in the Premier Division for next season.

With relegation fears now alleviated, City went into their final two games, Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers, without needing to get results.

City were all but guaranteed to be in eighth place due to the huge gap between the goal difference with Waterford. With that in mind, it appeared for large portions of the Dundalk game that Fenn had told his players as much, with the back four extremely hesitant to play longer balls, and instead having a very keen focus on keeping the ball on the deck at all times.

The only longer balls that were played, besides an occasional Tadgh Ryan kick, were dynamic switches of play which cut through Dundalk’s back line for large portions of the first half.

While the performance was far from perfect, and there are certainly aspects of square pegs in round holes in certain areas, it must be said that are certainly positive signs coming through under Fenn.

Even some of the more senior pros have looked far more confident in themselves over the past few games, with Fenn himself saying that he saw the Bohs game as the first corner turned for this City side.

While Friday’s result in Tallaght was far from perfect, City lined out with an extremely young side, with just two of the starting XI aged over 23.

Certainly, one of the shining lights from Cork City’s season is the performances of young midfielder, Daire O’Connor, signed from UCD.

During the opening games of the season, O’Connor looked lively and well assured on the ball, turning Dundalk’s experienced full-back Dane Massey for fun. As the season went on, it was evident that O’Connor’s opportunities became more and more limited in the first team. As City began to play a more rigid system, the opportunity for a creative free role diminished, and O’Connor didn’t appear to be as confident to try something different in the new system.

This has changed since the appointment of Neale Fenn, as O’Connor’s drive and determination to succeed has never appeared so high. He has appeared keener than ever to try to beat a man, and this confidence has been duly rewarded with two goals in two games, as City beat UCD and Dundalk in the tail end of the season.

With the guiding hand and trust from Neale Fenn and his management team, O’Connor could go on to be one of the stars of the league next season.

With a lot of work to be done in the close season, Fenn has already shown that he is not afraid to swing the axe with respect to building his squad and picking his team. He has not been afraid to look beyond loyalty to senior players, choosing Tadgh Ryan as his number one since Mark McNulty’s error against Sligo.

The same can be said of right back Colm Horgan, who last started against Bohemians, with Conor McCormack deputising in his place.

Fenn has been clear that this is a new regime and that past glory will be worth very little to him;

“I think we’ve probably come to the end of the road of that double-winning team of two years ago.”

With a clear need for fresh ideas, Fenn has a big summer ahead of him, and it will be his making, or breaking, as Cork City manager.

Many in Longford pondered why Fenn chose to leave them, for the sake of a nine-game stint to end the season at City, but with hindsight it has been an excellent decision.

Under Fenn, players like Byrne, Ryan and O’Connor have shown their class, and worked their way into contention for key roles in the squad next season. The time spent at City will also have given him a chance to assess the squad’s biggest flaws, which are evident.

City have lacked a creative spark this season. Under Caulfield, there has always been a standout player on the pitch who City turned to when in need of a goal.

When Seán Maguire left, the wheels began to come off for City, as they struggled creatively, stumbling slightly before winning the league title after a flawless start. In the 2018 season, Kieran Sadlier stepped up massively, both scoring and assisting obscene levels of goals.

This season, that spark has been lacking, and Fenn will be keen to address it, whether by increasing O’Connor’s role, or looking elsewhere for a new spearhead to lead the attack. Whatever the case may be, City will need a focal point in the 2020 season if they are to get back where they belong.

As Neale Fenn moves ever closer to his first full season at Cork City, there will be plenty of pundits and fans alike eager to see what will come of Cork in the 2020 season.

So far, Neale has done an excellent job in bringing confidence and belief back into the Cork City side through positive play and strong man management.

If City are able to bring better consistency and goal-scoring prowess, then recent performances point toward a bright future for the club.

With Neale Fenn, Cork City FC are rising.

Cian McGrath