If last season’s President’s Cup taught us anything, it’s that what happens is not necessarily indicative of what will follow for the league season.
In that particular match, Cork City defeated Dundalk 2-0 at Turners Cross – but while Stephen Kenny’s Lilywhites lost the sprint, they still won the marathon in the form of a third consecutive Premier Division title.
In that respect, it would be tempting to downplay City’s retention of the cup on Friday night, this time emerging 3-0 winners, as little more than a victory in Ireland’s version of the Community Shield, simply dipping the toe into the water ahead of the League of Ireland campaign starting next weekend.
Make no mistake, however, the margin of victory was not down to Dundalk not trying; they would have been out for revenge ever since Sean Maguire’s extra time winner trickled over the line in November’s FAI Cup final, and losing by three goals to their biggest title challengers will have upset them.
On a wet night in Cork, City controlled the narrative. Operating with a brand-new centre-back partnership consisting of pre-season signings Ryan Delaney and Conor McCormack in the absence of Alan Bennett and soon-to-be-departing Kenny Browne, the watertight duo of the 2016 campaign, the home side nonetheless put in a strong display at the back and will be encouraged by another clean sheet.
Up front, meanwhile, keeping Maguire was arguably more important to John Caulfield than any new face through the door, and the striker’s display (and goal) on Friday showed exactly why he is so vital to this team; even aside from his opening strike, he was a constant irritant to Brian Gartland and Paddy Barrett.
Dundalk were able to adjust and move on from the loss of Richie Towell in 2015, but if Friday was anything to go by then Daryl Horgan (and, indeed, Andy Boyle) will not quite be as easy to replace. More often than not, the visitors found the midfield congested and when they did get the ball out wide then City’s Steven Beattie and Stephen Dooley were up to the challenge.
That being said, Dundalk’s attack wasn’t blunt by any means. Patrick McEleney was probably their biggest creative threat and City goalkeeper Mark McNulty was called into action on a couple of occasions, but with Horgan not there anymore they did seem to lack a bit of that spark.
While there is still enough quality in that team that the vast majority of teams in the division will succumb, winning games like this will be that bit more tricky and much now will depend on how quickly Horgan’s replacement Michael Duffy adapts to the league.
And herein lies part of the problem. In the five occasions Cork City came up against Dundalk last season in all competitions, they won four of them. They enjoyed another commanding victory on Friday, so it can be inferred from this that there is no mental block when it comes to coming up against their main rivals.
The challenge will be matching Dundalk in other aspects of the season, namely the ruthlessness and stamina that has led to Kenny’s men lifting the league trophy in the last three years. This, of course, is easier said than done, not least because City did very little wrong last season. In fact, had they turned one or two of their seven draws into wins last season then it could have been their name on the cup.
All the manager can do at this point is hammer into the squad the fact that they are capable of beating whichever team is put in front of them – their repeated besting of Dundalk should be the foundation for success, not the totality of it.
In any other era they would have almost certainly won one at least one league title by now, and hopefully for Caulfield, the presence of Dundalk in the race can push his own side in much the same way as the reverse has been happening for the past few seasons.
That has to begin at Finn Harps next week. It might sound like an exaggeration, but there are times when games like that can set the tone for a whole season. Collecting three points at Finn Park is already essential not least because it lays down a marker to their title rivals, two of whom face each other that same night with Dundalk welcoming Shamrock Rovers to Oriel Park.
Caulfield and Cork City have added another trophy to the collection, but their eyes will now be firmly on lifting the main prize in October. To paraphrase a famous quote, it’s time to knock Dundalk off their f**king perch.
Good performance from the boys …. but the big ones Friday ?⚽️
— Karl Sheppard (@karlsheppard9) February 17, 2017