John Caulfield and Stephen Kenny embrace prior to the 2016 FAI Cup final between Cork City and Dundalk FC at the Aviva Stadium. (Pic: Dave Maher)
“Regardless (of the result), neither manager’s future is dependent on the outcome of this weekend’s showdown, Caulfield having already weathered a storm in the midst of a forgettable autumn run, which included a home humbling by the Lilywhites in the most emphatic 1-0 plausible. But it does seem as though the Cork boss needs the silverware more than his opposite number.”
It’s often interesting, upon a major development, to look back on how past events have been reported and that’s exactly what your writer did when news of John Caulfield’s departure from Cork City filtered through last Wednesday.
The opening line from this piece was recorded in The Democrat’s 2018 FAI Cup final preview - the fourth instalment of Dundalk FC’s decider drama with the Leesiders. Indeed, of all the thousands of words and hundreds of paragraphs contained in the 20-page pre-final supplement, that stands out more blatantly than Michael Duffy on a match night.
No-one could have predicted that within six months of Dundalk’s 2-1 victory, which left the Aviva head-to-head at two wins apiece, neither Stephen Kenny nor Caulfield would be in the positions they held at that time. The occasion, the manner of the outcome, it just didn’t seem epilogue worthy, considering their rivalry was unique in an era of managers coming and going elsewhere.
As League of Ireland aficionados, we should, of course, be thankful for both men and the roles they performed in the rising of standards in domestic Irish football. Although Kenny’s trophy haul was considerably stockier, Caulfield’s league and two FAI Cup triumphs earn him the tag as City’s most successful boss - and that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Had it not been for the Rebels’ supremo and his development of a title-winning panel to rival any that had gone prior, in 2017, as well as his team’s resistance in the years before and after, it’s likely that Kenny would have performed a yearly clean sweep of honours.
And, similarly, in another period, a Caulfield-led Cork may well have dominated had Kenny and Dundalk not been bonding so well at the same time.
It’s not too outlandish to state that Kenny and Caulfield in unison have altered the course of the League of Ireland - certainly for the better. In the eight years prior to their slog’s onset, the title had been won six times by Dublin clubs, Shelbourne (2006), Bohemians (2008-09), Shamrock Rovers (2010-11) and St. Patrick’s Athletic (2013), only Drogheda United (2007) and Sligo Rovers (2012) breaking the mould, five years apart.
Yet, following Caulfield’s appointment at Cork, the highest a capital club has finished is third, while, in 2016 and ’17, only one Dublin side qualified for Europe.
The average margin between Dundalk and the Rebels over the course of their five table-topping campaigns was five, but for a more informative barometer of their dominance, you need only to look at the yearning gap that grew between second and the rest: two in 2015, eight a year later and 15 for the two seasons to follow.
Their last ’Cup decider meeting was widely rued, neutrals deeming it unfortunate that there wasn’t a new finalist, but the standard had again been set by the showpiece pair and it was, perhaps, fitting that the Lilywhites would level the score for defeat in the years previous.
All things considered, it’s a shame Caulfield couldn’t have departed like Kenny, on his own terms on the basis of what he had brought to the plate for so long. Dundalk fans often levelled criticism at the Roscommon man for the direct style of his team, but the reality is, he played a key part in the thrill of the Oriel Park side’s ride of recent times.
Like Kenny, he is a League of Ireland legend.