Soccer Review 2017: Cork double up even with only half a Seani
Ireland’s World Cup rollercoaster only had one thrill and ended with a horrible spill
Seán Maguire waves goodbye to the Cork City fans after playing his final game for the club in the Europa League against AEK Larnaca in Cyprus. Photograph: Philip Soteriou/Inpho
At a time when there so much focus on Brexit and borders it is fitting that such a significant part in a season of club football was played by the export of a small but precious resource from this side of the Irish sea to the other.
Cork City were the country’s best team in 2017 and hats off to John Caulfield and all around him for what was achieved down at Turner’s Cross. But it was, as they almost say, a season of two halves. Seani Maguire’s move to England midway through it did not prevent them completing a double but it certainly played a part in the way the southerners’ title success will be widely remembered.
The rapid-fire goals, like the long succession of wins they helped secure, gave way to something more like relegation form. Still, they finished the campaign seven points clear of the team they had chased for the previous three seasons, while their defeat of Dundalk in the cup final killed off any griping from fans of their rivals about the contrasting form of the two sides during the title run-in.
The penalty shoot-out at the Aviva had barely concluded when the two rivals were recruiting for next year’s head to head and Shamrock Rovers and the rest of them are left to ponder just how it is that they prevent next year’s campaign coming down to yet another two-horse race.
Maguire, meanwhile, marched on, at least for a while. After four goals in 14 games at Preston, he had already come to be seen an important player at the Championship club. During that run he became a full international, having come on in the World Cup qualifier against Moldova – another example of a phenomenon that irks League of Ireland fans, famously described by one as ‘the magical power of airplanes’.
By the first day of November, though, it all caught up on Maguire and he was sidelined with a serious hamstring injury that ruled him out of all football until some time in the new year.
If the 23-year-old’s year might be aptly described by the old rollercoaster cliché then for Martin O’Neill’s side generally it was more like another fairground ride, one of those gravity-defying things where the train rumbles along harmlessly enough on the flat, picks up a bit of pace for a climb then hits a solitary peak and comes careering back towards earth with everyone on board doing their best to obscure the view.
After the results achieved in Belgrade and Vienna, 2017 had seemed to be full of promise for the Irish team but a hat-trick of qualifying draws this year undid all of the good work, and then some, so that by October O’Neill and his players were firmly up against it.
Six points from six saved them, for a month, with the high point that 1-0 win in Cardiff where, while the overall performance might be described as some sort of terrible beauty, James McClean’s goal was a worthy of winning any game.
Gareth Bale was absent through injury for the Welsh and Séamus Coleman, who had been sorely missed since being badly injured in the previous meeting between the two sides, for the Irish, but the hosts clearly expected to possess a decisive edge, most obviously in midfield where Joe Allen, Joe Ledley and Aaron Ramsey would have been expected to run the show.
Instead, Wales were muscled out of it, to such an extent that Allen had to be helped off after just 37 minutes. The locals were never quite the same without him and it is to Chris Coleman’s immense credit that he brushed rather lightly over the bruising nature of the contest afterwards, accepting instead that his players had simply not been good enough to open up a side whose manager had got the tactics spot on.
It wouldn’t last. Ireland probably needed to score in Copenhagen if they were have a real chance of beating Denmark in the playoff that followed but they didn’t and having led only to fall behind back in Dublin, O’Neill’s half-time changes only served to make a bad situation worse.
There are suggestions that the players were unhappy with the plan for the second half as they left the dressingroom but Ireland, in any case, were very well beaten and the manager’s early intervention took some of the shine off O’Neill’s reputation for making odd calls that reaped big rewards.
He will, it seems certain, have the opportunity to win us back round over the next two years during which time the Irish women’s team might, just might, have qualified for a World Cup themselves.
They have certainly made a good start to their campaign with their draw against the Dutch, and the celebrations that followed, amongst the highlights of the year. It suddenly seemed a very long time since the players had stood together in Liberty Hall looking for decent pay and conditions from the FAI. That is another thing from this year that will be hard to forget.