John Manning previews the clash between new league champions Cork City and relegation threatened St Patrick's Athletic at Inchicore.Fri, Oct 20 2017
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Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny has recently described this current Cork City side as ‘exceptional’.
This season will be remembered for what Dundalk have done, but it was Cork City who have made the season interesting and have ensured we had a thrilling League of Ireland Premier Division title race.
Kenny’s charges have been claiming all of the headlines both at home and across Europe in recent months, but the fact that he is speaking so highly of John Caulfield’s side shows how much Dundalk knew they had to force themselves to go up another level in order to clinch their third League Of Ireland title in a row.
Dundalk have produced some excellent displays in Europe this season both in the UEFA Champions League qualifiers at presently in the Europa League group stages, putting domestic Irish football firmly in the spotlight.
But, people are quick to forget that Cork went on a fantastic European run of their own, which was ended by a Genk side , who beat Athletic Bilbao at home in their most recent Europa League group stage game.
City, under Caulfield have improved each and every single year during his reign as manager and when his side go out onto the Aviva Stadium pitch on Sunday afternoon, they will be better equipped than ever to take on this Dundalk side, which some are claiming to be the best in League of Ireland history.
Dundalk’s achievements are deservedly getting comparisons with the likes of best in League of Ireland history, but City have proven they can put it up to and also beat the County Louth side. They have done it already, so why can’t they do it Sunday?
For the majority of the campaigns over the last decade, Cork City would have ended up as the league champions, but they were unfortunate this campaign that they were up against such a mightily impressive Lilywhites side.
Cork have won on three occasions against Dundalk this year, twice in the league and also in the Presidents Cup. So, if Dundalk are going to be getting all of the praise, it is a fair assumption to make that City also should be on the receiving end of some special credit.
The 2016 season has seen City look far more slicker and far more assertive going forward and they look much improved from the slow and one-dimensional side of last year.
Games between the two have been intriguing and closely contested affairs this season, which have shown the best of the league quality wise at times. There is every chance that Sunday’s game will also turn out that way.
Caulfield made some excellent additions to the side this year, with Sean Maguire scoring goals for fun on occasions. While Greg Bolger has also added a new layer to the City midfield and has produced some outstanding displays.
Maguire has gone under the radar though and the only player who one could argue is in better form this season in the attacking sense would be Daryl Horgan, who has positioned himself with a very realistic shot of getting into Martin O’Neill’s Ireland Senior squad.
Right across the pitch, when you assess both sides, on an overall level there is very little to separate the players in terms of quality. That should hopefully ensure we are in for one cracking cup final on Sunday and one which will be a brilliant advert for domestic Irish football.
From Gartland, Boyle and McMillan, to Bennett, Beattie and O’Connor, these are just a few of the names of squads which are packed with quality players and all going well, will prove to a wider audience how high a level League of Ireland football is at.
But an interesting debate heading into Sunday’s game is who would an FAI Cup success mean more for.
On one hand, you have a Dundalk side who want to continue to add to their legacy, by winning the double for the second year in a row. On top of all of that, they still harbour very realistic chances of qualification for the last 32 of the Europa League.
It just shows you how high they have raised the bar in the League of Ireland that many are predicting them to win the final, despite the fact they play in Russia against Zenit just three days earlier.
On the other hand, Cork City are a side who have been pushing Dundalk all of the way for the past few years and have done everything they can to keep up with them, yet at present they have nothing to show for it.
Caulfield and all of the City supporters would desperately love to bring some silverware down to Leeside. A cup would finally silence those doubters who claim that City have yet to beat Dundalk in a game that matters, quoting the final game of the season in 2014 and the game that effectively decided the title race a few weeks ago in Oriel Park.
Cork are primed and ready, as they have shown by their displays this season. The only thing they are missing is a trophy. But, in a season which is all about Dundalk, it is City who have pushed them all of the way.
The FAI Cup final is going to be another game which should be a very close one to call, but there is a strong chance that it will turn out like the Premier Division title race between the two and go right down to the wire.