Cork City ready for title party after champagne went flat
John Caulfield’s side limped over the line and need to get recruitment right for next year
Cork City celebrate a draw with Derry City which secured them the league title. Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
John Caulfield will need to get his recruitment right if Cork City are to retain the League of Ireland. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
It should be another good night down at Turner’s Cross this Friday but it will be that little bit better if Cork City finish their title winning campaign with a win – there haven’t been too many of them in recent weeks.
It is understandable that there was some negative reaction among players and supporters to the tone of some of the coverage as the club clinched top spot last week, but their form made it somewhat inevitable. They are worthy champions because this league is about being the best over 33 games, but it is clear they essentially won it over the first 22.
At that stage they had an incredible 64 points from 66 and their lead at the top of the table already looked unassailable. It is just as well. They have taken nine from 30 since and in a table based on every club’s last 11 games, a sequence that started for them with a win, they would sit 10th, in a relegation spot, with just 12 points and fewer goals scored than the team immediately below them, Finn Harps.
John Caulfield has repeatedly acknowledged that the run-in was difficult with Seán Maguire’s departure and the general presumption that the title was already in the bag adding to the challenge of getting the team over the line. Still, there surely must be some concern at the scale of his side’s decline in form during the run-in and particularly the fact that a team that was averaging just about 2.5 goals per game with Maguire, managed less than one after he left.
Clearly, as the team building for next season gathers a bit of pace around the league this week, finding one or more players to fill that void will be a priority. Caulfield has generally recruited very well over the past few seasons, not least in signing Maguire in the first place, but the club’s prospects of a staging a successful title defence look likely to hinge, to a disproportionate extent, on getting that one right.
As things stand, they have a seven-point margin heading into the last round of games and Dundalk know that after having been dominant for a few years, they have some improving to do again, something that will present a particular challenge if the likes of Seán Gannon, Robbie Benson and David McMillan end up moving on.
Harps, meanwhile, went down with a whimper in the end, securing just six points over those same 11 games but above them there has been the most remarkable scramble for survival. In that 11-game table, St Patrick’s Athletic sit second behind Stephen Kenny’s side with 21 points; top three form over the course of an average season, very comfortably so this year when many of the lower-placed sides have ended up doing a little better than has tended to be the norm.
The Dubliners’ improvement, of course, can be directly linked to a summer spend that allowed Liam Buckley to significantly improve the quality of his squad. The better rate of return at Galway and Sligo – who have picked up 19 and 18 points respectively from their last 11 games – is less obviously tied up with an ability to go out and buy survival.
One of those three will be joining Harps and Drogheda United in the first division next season and yet it seems that all have a fair amount to offer to the top flight. The reduction in the division’s size should mean a slight increase in quality overall as the best players are carved up among 10 instead of 12 clubs and the intention is average gates will improve as there will be an extra game between next season’s title contenders and a few more Dublin derbies.
It seems a relatively small gain in the overall context, though, for consigning an extra two clubs, ones with a reasonably good grounds and solid support bases, to a division which pretty much everyone regards as a wasteland.
The last time this happened Damien Richardson observed as he argued in its favour that if the Premier Division didn’t improve sufficiently over a few years to allow for an expansion back to 12, then the whole plan would have to be regarded as a failure. Well, the expansion came soon enough but it was based more on politics than progress.
The latest reduction is more of the same and it seems likely right now that every club relegated will have opposed the change when it was proposed then adopted in what passed off as a democratic process. It is unclear what the scale of anticipated benefits are because no detailed analysis of them has ever been presented publicly and it seems entirely possible that none exist. Rather, this year has been the equivalent of lowering the whole ship in the water then watching as the weakest aboard scramble for the lifeboats.
It has, as it happens,made for interesting viewing through the tail-end of a campaign in which the issue of the title had already been pretty much resolved.
There is, however, an onus now on not just the association but those clubs who engineered the change to show that there is a bit more to it all this time than just shuffling the deckchairs.