Joanne O'Riordan: Caulfield and Cork braced for new challenge

After finally relieving Dundalk of the title, City now face the task of defending the crown

When a team wins a title many stars have to align. Lucky breaks, injuries (or lack thereof), refereeing decisions – even when a team is unquestionably the best, some luck is almost always involved.

Players and fans celebrate titles because they are the best days of our sporting lives; we wish they could go on forever.

But, life moves on, and you find yourself asking, what next?

Sport forces us to consult this question time and again. Cork City manager John Caulfield knows what it takes to win a title. What he must now try and achieve is even more difficult – replicating last year's success.

To understand Cork City and the brash style they play with, you first must understand the man at the helm.

Caulfield was born in New York after his parents – his mother hails from Cork, his father Roscommon – emigrated, met abroad and fell in love. When Caulfield was two, the family packed their bags and shipped back to Ireland, settling in Roscommon.

“I went to boarding school in Sligo,” he explains. “It was an unbelievable soccer school we were in. We played bowls, but it was funny. The bowlers, which I was, were country lads and we all played GAA, but Sligo town, they were soccer. Townies we’d call them. I played both bowls and soccer, which was unusual.”

The notion of children being forced to choose just one sport still doesn’t sit right with Caulfield.

“I’d have to say, that’s why I would never stop a kid. When I hear people saying, ‘15, 16. You should give up this’, I say, ‘Never’. I see kids and think up to 18, 19 you should play what they want. I do accept things have changed, like with Munster Academy you have to sign and commit, likewise with the Cork City U-19s. But certainly, for 15, 16, 17, anyone would say, ‘well, I’m only picking whatever sport, hurling or soccer’. I just don’t think it’s right”.

His own decision was relatively straightforward. While his father always tried to persuade him he was a superior Gaelic footballer, his first love won out.

“My dad would always say ‘you were always a better Gaelic player’. Because even in my late years [I was] playing GAA, but they always saw me as a soccer man, mad to give me a flaking. Particularly when I was young, I was small. You did take a lot of physical abuse. Whereas in soccer you could look after yourself.”

Tough times

It was a decision he never regretted. In a career with Cork City that spanned 15 years (1986-2001), Caulfield scored his first hat-trick not long after making his debut in a 3-2 win over Sligo Rovers.

Along with Pat Morley and Dave Barry he became a key member of the City team that won the 1992-93 Premier Division, the 1997-98 FAI Cup, three League Cups and 11 Munster Senior Cups. Caulfield made 455 appearances for the club, a record which remains to this day.

Some see Caulfield as the embodiment of the club he continues to serve with such distinction. The early days were incredibly turbulent, starting on the bench, converting from defender to a striker before finding success. He knows what it’s like to go through tough times. It’s how things are.

In the mid-90s Cork City faced liquidation.

“I suppose the problem in this country is that, historically, business people got involved with money. They were Cork people that are coming in with money that made a fortune. Okay, they invest, make money and then take their money out. That was it.”

From the outside looking in it looks like some clubs, such as Cork, are now reaping the rewards of becoming a self-sufficient club. Dundalk have new owners. Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers appear in rude health. But when you scratch beneath the surface things aren’t quite as rosy as they appear.

According to Caulfield, while the FAI could do more to help, ultimately the clubs hold the cards.

“Certainly, there’s no doubt. There are two things. Clubs individually, there’s no doubt in my mind that supporter-owned clubs are the best way to go because their heart is in the right place. Ultimately, having volunteers in your club with the will to drive a club forward and the proper will behind it, is the way to go. However, that’s the one thing. Certainly, could they [the FAI]help? They could. The clubs themselves have to get their own house in order. There’s an order there.

“But the FAI could certainly help by being more rigorous, and certainly by having a certain number of full-time people designed to lead, which we don’t have. We’ve one person, which is impossible for them to do anything. Whether he’s good or bad, it’s impossible. You need four or five full-time people to try and make it as an industry and set standards.

Basic stuff

“People say it’s easy for us in Cork with over 5,000 people. But if we’re not playing well or don’t have good standards, we have less than 1,000 people . . . the fans won’t come unless you’ve done that. What I do understand is that you must go along the lines of saying ‘okay, if you don’t have proper dressing rooms or if you don’t have large screens in the ground. These are all basic stuff. If you don’t have the pitches watered. If you don’t, you’re not allowed in the Premier Division. . . . If you’re not going to do it, good luck’.”

“If you end up in all with eight clubs that’s fine – we have eight clubs that do it at that standard. The standard then improves.”

He pauses.

“We play Dundalk, and we don’t even use the dressing rooms because they’re 50 years old, they are a shambles. They’re after winning the league how many times . . . I’m not critical of them, of their manager because they have nothing to do with that.

“At the end of the day, that’s reality. Therefore, I am saying that managers should go over the points and see and look at it. Say in three years’ time, if you want to be in our league, you must have TVs in your grounds. You must have proper dressing rooms. That means then if you’re Bray Wanderers or Cork City, we all have those facilities and we’re all in the Premier Division.

"Then I think you set your standard. And then suddenly, you will have clubs that can say, 'We want to do that . . . we have three years to get ourselves right.' Or if they're Mickey Mouse, tough luck."

Caulfield has what he has. Like any manager, he will adapt his approach based on the talent at his disposal. It remains to be seen how this or future seasons will pan out.

Some managers have a better toolkit than others, but all have the same goal: to produce the best day ever. All but one of them, in every league, will fail. Why? Because the best day ever is just a day, another day in which something extraordinary happened.

And, in life, you just don’t get the best day ever, forever.