If every season gets the cup final it deserves, then the 2007 FAI Cup decider couldn't have been more representative of the seismic disruptions which have altered the landscape of domestic football ever since the FAI handover. A Cork City side whose management and playing staff appeared in open revolt against the club's new owners (whoever they were; nobody seemed quite certain on that score) lined up against an already-relegated Longford Town, managed by the heir apparent to the soon-to-be-vacant Cork throne.
As ever, football (or something resembling it) triumphed over the backroom machinations for ninety minutes at least, as Denis Behan's 60th-minute winner earned Cork their second FAI Cup in the windswept and inhospitable surrounds of the RDS. The bubble of jubilation was pricked even before the medals had been draped over the winners' necks, however, as Cork captain Dan Murray provocatively characterised the victory as "two fingers to the board" in an on-field interview with RTÉ.
A little over two months later, the discord has abated, the indignation has subsided, and all again seems relatively rosy in the Cork camp. Richardson was indeed outmanoeuvred and eventually dislodged (albeit after an agreed settlement) by the club's new owners (the Arkaga investment fund), who reportedly offered former manager Pat Dolan a generous financial inducement to again seize the reins which were dashed from his hands by the ancient regime. After apparently being rebuffed by their preferred candidate, Arkaga turned to Alan Matthews, manager of relegated Longford; a marginally less divisive appointment than that originally conceived.
No obvious Messiah, Matthews' reputation is that of a canny and astute operator who led a limited Longford team to two FAI Cups and a League Cup by utilising a style of football which concentrated on by-passing his players' weaknesses rather than emphasising their strengths. As such, the Dubliner will need to hit the ground running if he's to make a swift and favourable impression on the club's demanding fanbase. Early indications were promising, as Arkaga delved into the war-chest which remained steadfastly shut to former incumbent Damien Richardson in the wake of his 2005 title success under the previous administration.
The 2007 season was a traumatic and unstable one for Cork City; marquee signings Colin Healy and Gareth Farrelly were rendered unexpectedly ineligible for much of the campaign under the controversial and subsequently revised "three-club rule." The club's attack was deprived of its potency by the mid-season departure of top scorer Roy O'Donovan to Sunderland. A general shortage of numbers forced competent supporting cast members such as Admir Softic and Denis Behan centre-stage, where they garnered few bouquets.
Whether or not General Manager Aidan Tynan's grandiose vision for the club comes fully to fruition, Cork City will begin the 2008 season with a stronger and deeper squad, a new and methodical manager, a renovated stadium and a more stable atmosphere than the club has enjoyed for many years. In a city whose footballing narrative often mimics the sinuous course of the River Lee which winds through it, however, nothing is ever that uncomplicated.
Something of a surprise appointment to the position, Alan Matthews has demonstrated a remarkable ability to pilfer silverware with limited resources and limited players. How he adjusts to the very different challenge of managing a major club with serious expectations will define his premiership. With a generous three-year contract nestling in his desk drawer and a sizeable transfer budget at his disposal, Matthews will be judged by very different criteria to those which applied at Longford.
In his playing days, Matthews counted St. Patrick's Athletic, Drogheda United and Shelbourne among his employers, and also featured for Shamrock Rovers (the club he supports) during the twilight years of the club's golden era. He learned the managerial ropes under Dermot Keely at Shels and Longford, and bore much of his mentor's results-based and direct footballing philosophy (if not his blunt manner) into his own career. Taking charge of Longford in 2002, Matthews steered the unfashionable Midlands club to FAI Cup triumphs in 2003 & 2004, the latter of which was accompanied by victory in the League Cup. Throughout his tenure at Longford, Matthews was constantly forced to remodel and replenish a squad shorn of its standout performers at regular intervals (something which perhaps explains his emphasis on team structure rather than individual personnel.)
The bubble finally burst in 2007, when Longford were relegated largely because administrative shortcomings had incurred an (ultimately fatal) six point penalty. An exasperated Matthews took his leave of the club after leading them to the FAI Cup final, whereupon he succumbed to Arkaga's melodious overtures without much need for persuasion. He will be accompanied in the Cork City dugout by former Limerick 37 manager and Irish international Paul McGee.
As was frequently observed throughout the 2007 season, Cork City's first XI was as strong as any in the league. Unfortunately, Damian Richardson was seldom in a position to field such a team, and Cork suffered as a consequence. With the purse-strings loosened for new manager Alan Matthews, that problem is unlikely to recur in 2008. Already, Matthews has enticed play-maker George O'Callaghan back to the club from a short and typically torrid spell across the Irish Sea with Ipswich Town and Brighton & Hove Albion. Joining him in the Cork attack will be Dave Mooney, whose remarkable and unprecedented feat of topping the scoring charts with nineteen goals despite representing a relegated Longford team alerted a battery of clubs in Britain. Mooney, however, has chosen to hook up with his former manager and will hope to ease some of the striking burden from the notoriously fragile frame of John O'Flynn.
The arrival of O'Callaghan and Mooney should go some way towards alleviating the loss of Leon McSweeney, who departed for Stockport County after an impressive season in Cork colours last year. One player who has definitively not been replaced, however, is Alan Bennett, whose absence continues to be keenly felt over a year after he jumped ship to Reading. Brian O'Callaghan, since offloaded to (and then offloaded by) Halifax Town, never forged a convincing partnership with the consistently superb Dan Murray, and indications are that either Darren Murphy or Dave Mulcahy (a new acquisition from Waterford United) will occupy the vacant berth this season. Both, however, are more comfortable in midfield; a top-class central defender is still required if Cork are to challenge.
Neither the goalkeeping nor full-back positions give any cause for concern (in goal, the eminently capable Mark McNulty will continue to deputise for Mick Devine, and Pat Sullivan has joined from Longford to provide competition in the full-back slots), while the midfield engine room will be fiercely stoked by Joe Gamble and Colin Healy. Billy Woods and Colin O'Brien have both agreed to defer their respective retirements for a further season and will provide valuable and versatile support, particularly if Liam Kearney fails to awaken from the torpor which afflicted him for much of 2007.
Despite an impressive injection of talent in the close season, Cork continue to look a number of key personnel short of a championship-challenging squad. With Drogheda, Bohemians and St. Patrick's Athletic having strengthened considerably over the winter, Cork would appear (alongside Derry City) to occupy the second tier of Premier Division contenders. There is, however, no lack of experience in the squad and progress from a relatively innocuous Setanta Sports Cup group should be assured (although Matthews' previous excursion in Europe do not augur well for the club's UEFA Cup prospects.) Cork's season may hinge on O'Callaghan's re-integration into the team and Dave Mooney's ability (or otherwise) to rediscover his goalscoring form of last term. Under Matthews, solidity should be assured; creativity could take a little longer. Third place and another cup winners' medal to supplement his impressive collection is probably the best the new manager can hope for.
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