Cork City’s John Caulfield has admitted that despite the apparent plethora of teams ready to challenge for the Airtricity League title, reigning champions Dundalk are “still the team to beat.”
The holders lost their talismanic manager Stephen Kenny to the Irish U21s during the off-season with former assistant manager Vinnie Perth and a returning John Gill taking over.
Caulfield’s Cork fell short of Dundalk in what ended up becoming a two-horse race atop the division last season.
This year the likes of St Patrick’s Athletic and Shamrock Rovers have all invested in bringing quality into their squad but Caulfield admits that the Lilywhites are still the top dogs despite the loss of Kenny.
“Everyone is hoping on the outside that there’ll be a lot more teams challenging,” Caulfield told Pundit Arena at the launch of the Airtricity League on Tuesday.
“I suppose for the league it would be better if it was. Dundalk are definitely the team to beat.
“They’ve kept the same players, obviously, Stephen has moved on and Vinnie has stepped in but the same management backroom team will be there so it’s a smooth transition. The challenge is to the rest of us.
“We won the double the year before last, last year we fell slightly short, obviously we’ve lost a few players, can we maintain the levels we’ve shown over the last couple of years? can Rovers step up to the plate? Pats have invested well, Derry have invested, Waterford are back in Europe so there’s an indication that lots of clubs could challenge.
“We really won’t know until after maybe the first 10/11 games but certainly you’d hope that a lot more teams will challenge this year.”
The Cork boss must contend with a host of changes to the side that pushed Dundalk in both the League and the FAI Cup last year. The Leesiders have lost nine players and brought a host of new faces in, as they prepare for a trip to Richmond Park on Friday night.
Caulfield outlined that the challenge for his side will be how quickly the newer additions gel with the older more experienced players at the club
“It’s been a big challenge for us this year, we brought in a lot of new players, we lost nine from last year.
“In the last campaign, we had a much older more experienced team whereas this year we are much younger. The lads are working really hard and it’s just a new challenge for us. There’s a lot of talent in the team.
“The key to the season is to see how quickly the newer players will gel with the ones already at the club and see how they blend. It’s important to get the team shape right and getting the partnerships between defenders and midfielders right as well.
“We’ve done a lot of work but there’s a lot of work still to be done but early indications are that we are happy enough with what we have.”
One of the new faces at Turner’s Cross will be a familiar one for City fans. Kevin O’Connor has returned on loan from Championship side Preston and grabbed a fantastic free-kick in the President’s Cup over the weekend.
Caulfield was keen to outline that the addition of O’Connor will be a huge boost for his squad ahead of the new campaign which kicks off on Friday night.
“Kevin O’Connor is a big boost to have back because he’s a quality player,” began Caulfield.
“It’s great to get him on loan it was one of those situations where we didn’t think it would happen and then all of a sudden in the last two or three weeks it developed so we’re delighted because he’s a quality footballer.
“We’re happy to get him back plus the fact that he knows the club, he’s been here before he knows what we expect so yeah a great signing for us.”