Back to business last weekend after the Easter break for Cork City who undertook the long trip to the North West to face Sligo Rovers last Saturday evening.
Sligo has always been a place I’ve enjoyed visiting over the years, and despite being somewhat of a bogey team for the Leesiders over the past few seasons our record at the Showgrounds in my attendance has been fairly spotless.
Hence why I felt reasonably confident heading up the N17 on Saturday, with a City side whose last away game ended in victory at the home of the champions, facing a side who the week previous lost to Bray Wanderers 4-0.
The reality was to play out far removed from my expectations, as the visitors languished to an extremely disappointing scoreless draw against a tenacious Rovers side who, according to all critiques, played their best football of the 2016 season thus far.
The hosts closed down City at every given opportunity, choking them for space and totally shutting down the quick passing play we have seen from John Caulfield’s men against the likes of Longford and in the second half against Bohemians on the opening night.
Some green shirts performed far below expectations on the night; Colin Healy was unable to operate with such little time and space in the midfield axe, but accentuated things with lazy defending, Rovers captain Craig Rodden waltzed around the former Irish international on several occasions, leaving his defence badly exposed. Thankfully for City Eoghan O’Connell was returned to his usual centre-back role and really impressed, particularly in defence.
At the other end City, when they showed a bit of incisiveness, were getting in behind Rovers’ backline, and having abandoned the pointless activity of Sean Maguire trying to hold things up, Karl Sheppard made an early run and beat Schlingermann to the punch for City’s penalty. Maguire’s penalty was poor, lacking any sort of conviction as Schlingerman held, and when Sheppard was dispossessed after dawdling on a gilt-edged chance by Raegan Donnellan’s outstanding tackle it was difficult to see where a goal would come from.
It took Mark McNulty’s fine save to deny Kieran Sadlier and earn City a point, and when O’Sullivan was introduced instead of a Danny Morrissey that really impressed against Longford it was fairly clear that John Caulfield was happy to take the point and run.
Caulfield’s negative, long ball tactics were extremely frustrating against a Sligo team that, had City taken down the ball and played a bit more, were there for the taking. The Rebel Army’s breakout season in 2014 was based on the foundation of long balls into Mark O’Sullivan, who caught defenders out with his strength and aerial ability.
We’re now two years down the road from that campaign and this year’s side have already shown themselves well capable of outplaying teams; the aforementioned Longford and Bohemians performances have shown that, as well as City’s outclassing of Dundalk in the President’s Cup final. Why Caulfield saw the need to play the long ball game into Maguire I don’t understand, and at this stage, with the ends not justifying the means, it’s simply not good enough anymore.
However, what was just as, if not more, frustrating, was the fatalistic hyperbole emerging from City fans following Neil Harvey’s final whistle on Saturday. From sources I talked to at the Showgrounds, last Saturday’s game was Sligo’s best performance by a long way, and they clearly raised their game smarting from the defeat to Bray the previous week.
City aren’t a bad team, and while cynics in Sligo were trying to use the game to dismiss Caulfield’s chargers’ title challenge the truth is that football isn’t as simple as that. Both those in north-west and on Leeside overlooked the need to place the result into context. Football by its very nature is a fickle game, and I’m sure if we put in a strong performance against Wexford Youths most of those putting the boot into City this week would have been the same applauding the side for a hard-earned win had Maguire’s penalty gone in.
I said after the Longford game that City looked like title contenders, and nothing that I saw last Saturday has made me change my mind about that. Caulfield’s side put in a below-average performance against a fired up Sligo Rovers team who really upped their game, and had Maguire stuck that penalty I have little doubt that the Rebel Army would have come back to Cork on top of the league.
After the Derry defeat we saw an emphatic reaction against Longford, and with the players clearly smarting on the way back from Sligo, I’m looking forward to seeing what our response is Friday night.