Sunday’s President’s Cup match was a game of two halves and four seasons.
We had snow, sunshine, six goals and so much left for rumination. The competition, introduced in 2014, has developed into an endearing appetiser and Sunday’s game felt much closer to a league match than a pre-season irrelevance. There was a large crowd and lively atmosphere.
It seems Cork City and Dundalk cannot countenance anything other than a war if they face off. Discipline levels are impressively high when they meet but there is a fusion of needle and intensity that makes them ever-riveting.
When Sean Maguire departed, City’s loss of form was immediate and essentially lasted until the FAI Cup final, when they were back to something like their best by edging Dundalk on penalties. The Lilywhites were on a roll as winter approached and seemed more likely to win the league this season than the Rebels. On Sunday I changed my mind.
Clearly, one should not read too much into a President’s Cup final – but I will. Psychologically, the game may not matter a crumb, yet it would be unwise to assume as much. I couldn’t but notice the worried expressions of some of the Lilywhite fans as I left the ground.
Since the then-champions edged Cork 2-1 at a raucous Oriel before over 4,000 fans in October of 2016, they have met seven times. Dundalk have not won once and lost two Cup finals to Cork in that time.
Aided by a fierce breeze, Dundalk bossed the first half Sunday and were value for their 2-0 lead. Yet Cork, despite Graham Cummins struggling with the pace of the encounter, gave the impression that they would break the Dundalk defensive line sooner or later.
John Caulfield’s comment that the speed of the action left Cummins out of his comfort zone is a telling endorsement of how formidable these two teams have become (and by a qualified extension the league itself), considering the levels at which he played since he left Leeside six years ago.
Cork gave away sloppy goals but I do not see them conceding as frequently as Dundalk will this season. They are stronger between the sticks, with Peter Cherrie a hell of a back-up for Mark McNulty.
Stephen Folan is as good a passer as any centre-back in Ireland and he will score goals too but he also tends to make mistakes; he was the mainstay in a Galway defence last year that conceded 50 goals. Sean Hoare has yet to prove himself as a top-notch centre-half – even if he has time.
Against that, Cork’s Alan Bennett remains a rock if a weathered one, while Aaron Barry gave the impression that he is exactly the no-nonsense centre-back that John Caulfield wants in his team. Shane Griffin is the best left-full in the country.
Caulfield may not be a tactical genius and Cork’s limitations get exposed in Europe more so than Dundalk but his players rarely give cheap goals away and their positional prowess in games reflects that they are generally intelligent footballers who know what to do. Nobody embodies this more than Conor McCormack.
He does that holding job better than anyone in the league. Caulfield seems to have shaped him into a player who has intentionally forgone his passing game but the bottom line is he defends so well that it doesn’t matter – and Cork have forward players brimming with ability.
Kieran Sadlier, Karl Sheppard and Barry McNamee’s collective second-half performance will have had Caulfield salivating. Cummins grabbed a goal but it was the other three who ran the show, as Gearoid Morrissey took the bull by the horns in the engine room behind them.
Cork might not have quite the squad depth as Dundalk but they look defensively more secure and clearly have the head-to-head edge right now. With the new format, these sides face off four times in the league – a 24-point swing between the two extreme eventualities.
Dundalk were hit by a bug before Sunday, Stephen O’Donnell remains sidelined and Patrick Hoban is only returning from injury, so they had plenty to be happy about.
Ronan Murray scored twice but was nearly upstaged by Jamie McGrath, who has predictably taken time to adjust to a gym regime alien to him at St Patrick’s. He could evolve into a contender for player of the year.
Krisztián Adorján looks a class act for Dundalk, yet it was telling that Cork suffocated him in the second-half, even if neither he nor Robbie Benson was in full health. Georgie Poynton was excellent at times as a makeshift right-back.
All in all, Stephen Kenny has little to be fretting about – but the Lilywhites need to improve on their head-to-head record against Cork this season, and last Sunday will perhaps worry him a little.
Caulfield knows how to beat Dundalk. He also knows how to work the media and his comments about live Thursday-night football were quite noteworthy at Tuesday’s league launch.
Another thing worth noting is that RTÉ’s League of Ireland coverage this year will be sponsored by a bookmaker, Betway – one which has virtually no foothold in Ireland and one that is based in Malta and Guernsey.
With its summer-league format, there is huge scope for the league to lure sponsorship from betting companies, who are particularly keen to attract punters who bet in-play on live action (in-play now accounts for an incredible three-quarters of the action on the behemoth Bet365).
Though such a relationship is always somewhat uneasy, and betting scandals have sullied the name of Irish football in recent years, the league should not be afraid of betting, and the bottom line is that it is easier than ever before to know when something untoward is going on.
More people than ever want to wager on our matches – many of them who do not count English as their first language. Like it or not, betting is a vehicle to promote our product to the world, a world that Caulfield insists is taking more and more interest in the League of Ireland.
Paddy Power reckons alone that the League of Ireland betting has increased about ten-fold within a decade.
And if you are betting on who will win the league this year, Caulfield’s Cork deserve your money.