Fresh faces can breathe new life into a heated rivalry that resumes this weekend

The League of Ireland season is almost upon us, with Dundalk and Cork City meeting in the curtain-raiser.
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David McMillan and Mark McNulty clashing during the 2017 FAI Cup final.

Source: Ryan Byrne

IN THE BUILD-UP to last November’s FAI Cup final, there was a growing sense from some quarters that the rivalry between Dundalk and Cork City was beginning to abate.

Admittedly that view was held mostly by supporters of other clubs who were jaded of standing idly by while the same two teams divided Irish football’s biggest prizes between them for the best part of four seasons.

Nevertheless, any suggestion that the two clubs may no longer have had the appetite to butt heads in a battle for supremacy vanished in the days before and after Cork City’s penalty-shootout victory at the Aviva Stadium.

Mark McNulty was unable to resist another juvenile jab at the Lilywhites, while Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny claimed that the City goalkeeper’s “out of the gutter” taunts were evidence of a lack of class on Leeside. The exchanges continued after Karl Sheppard performed a u-turn by staying in Cork despite penning a pre-contract agreement with Dundalk.

The FAI Cup final indeed showed that this particular rivalry hasn’t run its course just yet. Like any great sporting rivalry, a balance of success and failure is necessary on both sides in order for each protagonist to truly appreciate the satisfaction in avoiding the latter. After three years of setting the standard, Dundalk were finally overtaken and had to settle for being second-best in 2017.

In certain respects — brace yourself for a ludicrous analogy here — there are shades of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal about the manner in which this duel has developed. Federer dominated for so long, charming the audience with a style of play that appealed to the purists. But eventually a worthy adversary surfaced, antagonising and snarling his way to a seat at the top table with an approach that was more aggressive than elegant.

While the Cork-Dundalk rivalry doesn’t seem to be in need of a fresh impetus, the high turnover of personnel during the winter months could also provide a new lease of life should an extra shot in the arm be required. Both Stephen Kenny and John Caulfield have had to contend with significant departures, while simultaneously welcoming in players they hope will serve as able replacements.

In happier times: Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny and Cork City boss John Caulfield.

Source: Donall Farmer

Dundalk have suffered the bigger losses since the end of last season. Among those who have moved on is David McMillan, their top goalscorer in 2017, who has joined St Johnstone. Following a campaign during which he seemed to produce goal of the season contenders every second week, playmaker Patrick McEleney is now at Oldham Athletic. Key defender Niclas Vemmelund, who headed Dundalk into an extra-time lead in the FAI Cup final, has returned to his native Denmark.

Incoming from elsewhere in the League of Ireland are left-back Dean Jarvis from Derry City, while centre-back Stephen Folan and former Ipswich Town striker Ronan Murray have arrived from Galway United. After gaining first-team experience while on loan at Bohemians last season, former Ireland U19 player of the year Georgie Poynton — who’s still only 20 — could now be ready to give Stephen Kenny a selection headache in midfield.

Experienced Lithuanian international midfielder Karolis Chvedukas looks like a potentially exciting addition, as is Hungarian U21 international playmaker Krisztian Adorjan, a former Liverpool trainee who made a good impression on the locals during Wednesday’s 2-1 win against a Brentford ‘B’ team in a friendly at Oriel Park.

Both Dundalk and Cork City have also re-signed former goalscoring heroes for the 2018 season. Having left for Oxford United after his 20-goal contribution helped the Lilywhites to win the title in 2014, Patrick Hoban is back for a second spell in Louth.

The departures from Dundalk since the 2017 season concluded may have been more significant than those felt by Cork City, but the reality for the Leesiders is that life without Sean Maguire will only now begin in earnest. To fill that void, Graham Cummins has returned home to Cork from St Johnstone. Cummins scored 24 goals as City were crowned First Division champions in 2011, which earned him a move to Preston North End.

Stephen Dooley, now at Coleraine, is City’s other big loss in attack for 2018. Greg Bolger is likely to be a valuable addition for Shamrock Rovers, but his place in John Caulfield’s midfield had already been hijacked by Conor McCormack, a childhood Dundalk supporter who’s been named Cork City captain for this season. At the back, Ryan Delaney is now preparing for an FA Cup fifth-round game against Tottenham Hotspur for his new club Rochdale. The 21-year old went back to the UK following a season-long loan spell in Cork.

Krisztian Adorjan and Graham Cummins.

Source: PA Images

Those departures have been tempered by plenty of movement in the opposite direction. Graham Cummins is one of eight new signings, joining goalkeeper Peter Cherrie (Bray Wanderers), defenders Colm Horgan (Galway United), Tobi Adebayo-Rowling (Sligo Rovers), Aaron Barry (Derry City) and Danny Kane (Huddersfield Town), midfielder Barry McNamee (Derry City) and striker Josh O’Hanlon (St Patrick’s Athletic) at Turner’s Cross for 2018.

But as always in the merry-go-round that is the League of Ireland, the most important business conducted by both clubs in the off-season may have centred on the players who have stayed put. Dundalk midfielder Robbie Benson and winger Michael Duffy could both kick on to the next level after promising showings last year, while Conor McCormack in front of the back four and wide attackers Kieran Sadlier and Karl Sheppard are likely to play key roles for City.

Although the form book favours Cork City — they’ve won seven and lost just one of the last 10 meetings between the teams — the extent to which both squads have changed in recent months could render that statistic somewhat redundant.

There’ll be expectation for both managers to handle too. John Caulfield will be keen for his players to repeat their success of 2017 and prove that it wasn’t ultimately down to the contribution of Sean Maguire, whereas Stephen Kenny must now satisfy the demands of an ambitious group of new owners, for whom an EA Sports Cup alone is unlikely to suffice.

Will the League of Ireland in 2018 again be dominated by its two biggest rivals of recent years, or is it time for a Novak Djokovic to emerge and break the stranglehold? (We’re looking in your direction, Stephen Bradley).

Dundalk and Cork City contest the President’s Cup at Oriel Park on Sunday afternoon (2pm).

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