Seven-and-a-half years may be a long time in football. But that time has probably passed just a little bit quicker for Cork City fans.
They have experienced almost every emotion possible in that time. From the stress and worry that comes with running any Irish football club to the pure, unadulterated joy that scoring a goal, winning three points or lifting a trophy can bring with it.
From near extinction to last season’s FAI Cup triumph, City supporters have been through the mill, tossed out and thrown back in again since before and after the fans first took the reins of a crumbling club at the beginning of the 2010 season. While that year brought with it a never-before-seen set of challenges and concerns, the ship – battered and full of holes as it may have been – was steadied and survived to fight another season.
While the First Division title win in 2011, the FAI Cup victory in 2016 and European run that same year are notable milestones in City’s progression since, there was one more item to be ticked off the list in this modern era of prosperity – the Holy Grail – the Premier Division title.
Even the most positive of fans may be still coming to terms with how this has been achieved in such a short space of time.
With a squad of just 13 players ahead of the club’s first clash under the ownership of the supporters against – ironically enough a club which tends to be the opposition on historic nights for the Leesiders – Derry in 2010, not many saw this day coming so soon. While the gulf in finances between Ireland’s top two tiers may not be as vast as seen elsewhere on the continent, the bridge-building and repair work which needed to be done before a foundation made of sturdier stuff than sand was built seemed endless.
However, what has emerged from the shadows of near ruin is a club now pulsating with life – illustrated by the fact that the vast majority of the highest attended League of Ireland matches this term have been in a Turner’s Cross Stadium bursting with passion and excitement.
After a couple of years of languishing – in Cork City terms – in mid-table at the beginning of this decade, a will to win has been re-established in the team that went hiding for a time. It was, perhaps poetically, to be one of the club’s old heroes who has in the meantime managed to capture the county’s attention and with it the country’s.
Appointed manager in 2014, John Caulfield was in many ways an unknown quantity – managerially at least. Any devout League of Ireland fan who attended games during the 1990s would at the very least recognise his name, but in terms of being able to guide a LOI team to titles there were still questions being asked.
In his first season he failed to actually win the title but going within one game of lifting the club’s first Premier Division trophy in what was then a nine-year wait was far from a bad start.
There are usually too many ifs and buts placed on just falling short of league titles but had it not been for Dundalk’s dominance over the past three seasons we would, almost certainly, be celebrating a domineering City team instead.
Overcoming the Lilywhites in a game of real consequence was, however, needed to truly break the Louth club’s stranglehold and it was achieved last term with an FAI Cup victory which cannot be understated in this story of bust to boom.
Avenging their 2015 defeat and in turn winning a trophy ahead of their direct rivals has been just enough of a taste for this side to move onto the next level.
Given what was at one stage an enormous gap between City and Dundalk at the top of the table, it is clear this squad, with the sprinkling of some integral new additions this year such as Conor McCormack, Ryan Delaney and Jimmy Keohane, has moved several levels above even their nearest competitors.
What makes this achievement all the more significant, however, is the blueprint it now sets for Cork City’s Irish counterparts. An attractive product built on sustainable development has won the League of Ireland title. Cork has its geographical, social, political and financial advantages compared to other less densely populated areas of Ireland, yes. But this club has not banked on those elements, it has squeezed every ounce out of what is available to it right now and hasn’t put everything on red in the hope of a brighter day.
That brighter day has consequently come quicker than expected, it’s taken just seven-and-a-half years.
It has come through a perfect cocktail of prudent management, players with a hunger matched by few in this land and a level of performance which has helped raise both the standard and profile of the league.
The vexing times of the late noughties will not be quickly forgotten by those now in control of the club, the supporters, but 2017 is a time for celebration of what can and has been achieved by a special group of footballers.
It’s less than a decade since the club was on the brink of collapse. Now a record points tally and Champions League football are on the horizon.
A lot can change in seven-and-a-half years…