Nobody knows Cork City F.C. better than John Caulfield. He is the record appearance holder and joint top goalscorer. He has been a part of the club for most of his adult life.
Caulfield is a club legend and now in his capacity as manager there is a vibrancy about Turner’s Cross that had been largely absent for years. This weekend the club are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the club and who better to talk about the highs and lows of that time than the man who has helped bring Cork City to as healthy a position as they’ve been in.
Caulfield arrived at the club in 1986, two years after its foundation and the club he found was vastly different to today.
“There were no stands at Turner’s Cross, it was just clay banks all around the ground. The training conditions were barbaric but that was just the way it was.”
Over the next few years the club became a bit more professional and won the League Cup, their first piece of silverware, at the Cross in 1988 against a Shamrock Rovers side who had won the league four times in a row.
“Rovers ran into us on a day when we did everything in our power to win the cup and they probably took us for granted. The reaction around the city was huge because Cork soccer had been down for so long after Hibs and Celtic went out of business and it was probably the kick-off to the success of the early 90s.”
A few years later City earned a famous 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich at Musgrave Park, a result Caulfield believes is the best ever achieved by a League of Ireland side.
“We surprised them. We got stuck into them and made it awkward. Dave (Barry) got a goal after 25 minutes and all of a sudden we were 1-0 up against Bayern Munich and you’re saying to yourself ‘God this is incredible’. We rode our luck in the second half and came away with a draw.”
The club were improving year on year and eventually achieved what they wanted most, the league title in 1993. Caulfield puts the success partly down the fact that they were a really united team with real camaraderie in the group.
“To be honest, a lot of the Dublin teams didn’t like us because they knew we were a real Cork team and we caused a lot of teams trouble at Turner’s Cross.”
They certainly didn’t win it the easy way, a trend supporters would become excruciatingly familiar with over the years, as the league went to an unprecedented three way play-off.
“It was incredible, the season went on for an extra six weeks.”
City, Bohemians and Shelbourne finished the season level on points and couldn’t even be separated after the first round of play-offs. Eventually, City beat Bohemians at Turner’s Cross before defeating Shelbourne at the RDS to win their maiden title. Caulfield described the overriding feeling following the victory.
“To be honest there was a lot of relief having missed out in ’91 (City finished 2nd to Dundalk after losing to them on the final day) but it was a great occasion for us”.
While the team was going from strength to strength on the pitch the club was soon in turmoil off it. City made an ambitious effort to move to their own stadium in Bishopstown in 1993, something Caulfield believes probably came “ten years too early”. The move wasn’t popular with the fans especially given the state of the ground.
“It was a field with goalposts really. There was little work done on it and the stand wasn’t even finished. As a result the supporters really didn’t take to it.”
Fans protested and stopped coming to games as they grew disillusioned with the way the club was being run.
“Let’s say, the chairman didn’t exactly warm himself to the supporters”.
The club rebuilt under newly appointed manager Dave Barry, moving back to Turner’s Cross and tasting success in 1998, winning the FAI Cup for the first time. The club is in a similar position now, rebuilding under FORAS and Caulfield following the financial problems in 2010.
Caulfield was the embodiment of work rate and determination as a player and he demands the same from his players.
“What I want is to get a team of guys together who go out and give it everything they have and if that’s not good enough that’s fine. But I don’t want our fans to go home critical of the team for not working hard enough.”
That attitude has been in evidence right from the off this year, with the season opener against St. Pats seeing confidence grow and the team have been riding the wave of enthusiasm from then on. The crowd’s enthusiasm for the club has grown too, as evidenced by the huge crowd that turned up for Caulfield’s first game in charge.
“The atmosphere on the night was electric and for me to walk out to that on my first night as manager was fantastic. I think people walking out of the ground that night could see that the players gave it their all. Down here if our supporters see that, they’ll row in behind you.”
The supporters certainly have. Turner’s Cross is consistently seeing the highest attendances in the league with the club regularly bringing in over 3,000 fans. City are top of the table with just over a third of the season remaining. Another fan favourite, John O’Flynn has returned to the club in the last fortnight and it appears Caulfield is getting the club back to the standing it had when O’Flynn left. The striker’s first spell at the club saw City win a second league title in 2005, as well as the FAI Cup two years later. However, Caulfield is determined not to see the club overstretch itself and indulge in the excesses that characterised the latter stages of that successful spell.
“Shelbourne were paying huge money, Derry were paying huge money, Cork were paying huge money. There was a big push to make all of the clubs full time and maybe compete with the lower leagues in England, but watching from the stands it was hard to justify how the clubs were going to survive long term. It was an era where clubs were living outside their means. I know there had been three or four good years, but is it three or four good years when your club goes bust at the end of it and you nearly wind up?”
Caulfield has been glad to see a return of a “common sense approach” to the league in recent years.
“The whole Celtic Tiger thing is gone which is probably no harm and things have settled down and money has gotten realistic. People aren’t getting much money but what they get, they earn.”
That approach has seen the club focus on developing a local core of players who just want to give their all for Cork City.
“The money at this club is very small, there are players here who could play elsewhere, but thankfully we have three-quarters of the squad who are Cork guys, which is hugely important, who want to play for themselves, for the club and for their families.”
He acknowledges that other clubs in the league have bigger budgets which makes things difficult and that in Dublin there are a lot of players who move from one club to the other, which is not really the case in Cork.
On the other hand though, City are the biggest club in Munster by some distance, something that Caulfield believes gives the club “huge potential”.
“What we need to do is extract more players from out of the province, we have the two Dennehys from Tralee and we’ve always got players from Tipperary, guys like Ollie Cahill, Stephen Napier and Kelvin Flanagan. If we can put better structures in place hopefully we can continue to do that.”
Whatever structures he and his colleagues are introducing are clearly working as City’s form shows no sign of abating and they have emerged as unlikely title contenders. It has been tight at the top all year and perhaps City will come out victors, as they did in 1993. If they do, Caulfield will take immense credit for instilling a young side with the traits that made him successful as a player; hard work, determination and no little self-belief.
Simon Bracken, Pundit Arena.