For Cork City, 2019 was a forgettable season. It was only 12 months earlier that the club had finished second on the back of a league and cup double in 2017. It had been a period of sustained success, and optimism remained high. But fortunes quickly changed. Form seemed to evaporate from senior players like Conor McCormack, Garry Buckley and Colm Horgan while boss John Caulfield, staring at possible relegation, decided to step down.
Yet, while it’ll be a challenge to knock Dundalk off their perch, new manager Neale Fenn, who helped the club avoid the drop in 2019, is optimistic that Cork City’s fortunes are again on the up. With Karl Sheppard and Aaron Barry joining McCormack, Buckley and Horgan in a post-season clear-out, the club has some fresh faces to help Fenn and new assistant coach, club icon Joe Gamble, take the Leesiders in a new direction.
As a club owned by its supporters – through the Friends of the Rebel Army Society (FERAS) – Fenn has done some shrewd business by acquiring the talents of hungry young players on free transfers like former player Cian Coleman alongside more experienced footballers such as centre-back Joe Redmond, who joins on loan from English Championship side Birmingham City.
Wary of the financial difficulties suffered a decade ago when, after a period of examinership, the club’s holding company was wound up, FERAS has overseen the Rebel Army emerge as one of Ireland’s biggest clubs.
The supporter-run trust joins an exclusive group of football club fan owners to oversee their tea, promoted in the 21st century. Indeed, the Leesiders got back into the Premier Division in 2012. Similarly, generous lottery winner Paul Bristow pumped millions into hometown club Torquay United just when it looked like they were about to go bust, and saw them make it back into the Football League in 2007. This was in addition to his donation to other worthy causes, and made a huge difference. In fact, his wife, Thea, became chairperson of the club herself in 2013.
By taking Redmond on loan for a year, and acquiring the services of fellow defenders Charlie Fleming and Rob Slevin on one-year contracts, the club is gearing up for its title challenge through astute financial management that’ll hopefully give it the stability to not only get back up the table where it feels it belongs but stay there for the long term.
Indeed, local boy Slevin gives Fenn the option to pick a burly defender who does the ugly side of the game well while providing the manager options by being able to play at centre-half or left-back. Meanwhile, Fleming excites Fenn with his athleticism and willingness to get forward when called upon. Midfielder Henry Ochieng also joins the club, as does striker Reyon Dillon and “Corkman” Cory Galvin.
The news that veteran defender Alan Bennett will fulfil a player-coach role at the club also gives Fenn hope that he can help nurture a young but talented backline. And squad depth has been boosted by the acquisition of former Ireland Under-21 goalkeeper Liam Bossin. Fenn said he’d admired the shot-stopper for a number of years and was thrilled to get the player whose previous clubs include Anderlecht and Nottingham Forest.
With the season quickly approaching, the Leesiders will hope the off-season shake-up will have the desired effect on their league position. Fenn showed what he was able to do with the struggling squad he acquired in 2019. Now, having added players he’s been able to handpick, he’ll be hoping to reverse the team’s fortunes.