The travails of Cork City over the past seven or eight years have been well documented, but on Sunday they have the chance to step up their League of Ireland revival by capturing their first FAI Cup since 2007.
The occasion on Sunday is everything that a cup final should represent – the two best teams in a division fighting it out in a one-off battle with both sides desperate to assert their dominance with a close encounter and a win for either club almost guaranteed to be by a narrow margin.
This game will be tight – fixtures between Cork City and Dundalk tend to be these days – but Stephen Kenny’s side will go into the final as deserved favourites. You would have to go back nine games and three years to the last time City prevailed in this fixture – a 3-0 win at Turner’s Cross in the penultimate game of the 2012 season.
There is much to admire about what Dundalk have achieved in the past couple of seasons. Kenny had a massive job on his hands when he took charge of the Lilywhites following their near-relegation three years ago.
He got them to within three points of champions St. Patrick’s Athletic in his first year before winning consecutive titles, the most recent of which was by a margin of eleven points and involved breaking a record for team goals scored in a season.
Kenny has transformed Dundalk into a machine – they are undeniably the best team in Ireland and have repeatedly demonstrated that their will to win has thus far been unflinching.
They have dominated the PFAI award nominations – making up seven of the PFAI Team of the Year along with three of the four Player of the Year nominations – and in Richie Towell they possess the most gifted player in the division.
That being said, there is something different about a cup final. The steely determination and focus that it takes to win a league title – which Dundalk clearly have and Cork are making gains towards – gets its own reward but matches like this more often than not require an altered mindset.
Psychologically it is vastly different – it is far too simplistic to suggest that this is the same as a big league meeting between these two, and if either side fails to grasp that then they will almost certainly be punished for it.
This is a factor that City manager John Caulfield is acutely aware of, telling RTÉ midweek:
“When it gets to a cup final it’s a different type of occasion – it’s a once-off, it’s the Aviva, all the supporters get out in big numbers.
“There’s an added pressure because the coverage is so big compared to a league match so it changes the dynamics a little bit.”
It’s something that the club themselves have experience in too. Having won the 2005 Premier Division title, the Leesiders were unable to complete the double as they fell to a 2-0 defeat by Drogheda United at Lansdowne Road.
Whether or not Dundalk fall into that same trap remains to be seen but that is not something that Caulfield can strategise for – he must assume Kenny’s men will be at their best and plan accordingly.
For all of Dundalk’s potential matchwinners, City have a few of their own. Forwards Mark O’Sullivan and Karl Sheppard have been in flying form, while the return of Billy Dennehy to the wing has been a welcome boost for the team. Should it come down to a penalty shootout (and there is a decent chance that it might) then goalkeeper Mark McNulty is in the type of form that could see him make himself a hero.
The ace up their sleeve, however, may in fact come in the form of Caulfield himself. He has taken what was ostensibly a mid-table team and made them believe in themselves again. A City legend from his playing days, he has brought the old intensity and passion back for the supporters in his role as manager and the level of optimism that permeates the players and fans has not been this high for nearly a decade.
As much as anyone else, Caulfield deserves some form of reward for the rebuilding job he has done at Cork, and a cup win on Sunday would be a perfect way to show it. A cursory glance at the #corkisgreen Twitter feed demonstrates exactly how much this means to everyone associated with the club.
Cork City return to the scene of their 2005 heartbreak this weekend (the 2007 cup win having come in the unfamiliar surroundings of the RDS) knowing that recent history does not favour them.
But if Caulfield can instil within the players the same mentality that he has been espousing in the build-up to this match, if they can tap into the support that they have been receiving from the crowds at Turner’s Cross, then they will firmly believe that they can end their Dundalk hoodoo and return south triumphantly with the trophy.
Simon O’Keeffe, Pundit Arena