Of all of the subplots forming in this latest League of Ireland Premier Divison season, Bray Wanderers potentially challenging Cork City and Dundalk for the title seems arguably the most surreal.
Despite generally flirting with relegation, the Seagulls have maintained their Premier Division status for over a decade (though they had City’s demise to thank in 2009). However, something seems dramatic seems to have changed under Harry Kenny, something that suggests that Bray might be much of a force this season.
Kenny, a Shamrock Rovers legend from his playing days, took over at the beginning of the 2016 season after a period of turbulence at the club that had seen them go through five bosses the previous year. It looked like being more of the same at the Carlisle Grounds as just two wins and eleven losses from their first 16 games looked like the makings of another relegation battle, but something clicked with that team in the summer.
They won 11 of their remaining 17 matches last year to finish a very impressive sixth, including wins against Dundalk and Friday’s opponents City, in a run that they are still enjoying in this campaign. They sit third in the table, level on points with the reigning champions and six clear of Limerick in fourth, and while title talk is still fanciful, every passing week seems to be a direct warning to sit up and start taking notice of them.
The addition of Gary McCabe has proved a masterstroke from Kenny. The former Shamrock Rovers winger moved to Bray with a point to prove, and so far he has more than done that. The 28-year-old leads the way in the Premier Divison goalscoring charts with eleven goals in what is already his highest scoring league season, and his contribution in working with Dylan Connolly and fellow new signings Aaron Greene Anto Flood makes Bray a formidable prospect going forward.
Which makes the match in Cork on Friday all the more intriguing. The unstoppable force meets the immovable object if you will, as Bray’s free-scoring attack comes up against City’s watertight defence. John Caulfield’s side have conceded just four goals all season, and none in their last five matches in all competitions, and they will no full well that shutting Bray’s attack down is the key to beating them.
Above all else this season, Cork City have adapted and found different levels to beat different teams in the division. Over the course of the ten-game winning run that they are on, they have been dominant, they have been ugly, at times they have been fortunate, but each time they came through at the other end with the three points. This is a team that knows how to win, and Bray’s innocent exuberance may not be enough to counteract that.
Bray’s defence is still a major issue, as while they have been banging them in at one end, they have been leaking at the other. Their goal return is bettered only by City’s but at the same time their concession rate is akin to that of a midtable team. Against players with an eye for goal lately such as Sean Maguire, Karl Sheppard and Garry Buckley, that could be their undoing. Their policy of winning by outscoring the opposition no matter how many they let in will be tested to the hilt.
The visitors will be fearless, of that there is no doubt, but that will only get them so far. They took down Dundalk in a very impressive manner and they blitzed Shamrock Rovers last week, but that element of surprise won’t be there forever. Not to dismiss the quality in Bray’s lineup but nobody expected them to be in third at this point of the season – now is the time to prove that they belong there.
For while Bray have a chance to go from wide-eyed hopefuls to a team to beat (and following up their wins against Derry City, Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers with a win on Leeside would certainly do that), Cork City have a chance to tighten their grip at the summit of the league table, to go twelve points clear of Kenny’s men and put the would-be contenders back in their box.
It will be a fascinating encounter, and one that could yet have consequences for the title race further down the line.
Joining us on the Mixer football podcast this week is Shamrock Rovers defender Roberto Lopes, in addition to our usual review of the latest round of League of Ireland action.