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Monday 30 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Ryan Byrne/INPHO Cork's Aaron Bolger is held aloft as fans celebrate winning the First Division.
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How Colin Healy helped restore Cork's pride by giving power to the people
The Leesiders were champions of Ireland in 2017. Tonight, they lift the First Division title after coming through a tumultuous time on and off the pitch.

WHEN THE TITLE was won and the nerves of an anxious final few weeks subsided, Colin Healy could finally relax. “It’s more relief than anything else because of how it went on,” the Cork City boss explains.

Some of that tension had boiled over when he got a red card during the 2-2 draw with Longford Town at Turner’s Cross at the beginning of last month.

Even the most placid have their breaking point.

It meant the Cork boss was serving the second of a three-game touchline ban when the Leesiders eventually got over the line at home to Wexford two weeks ago.

Perhaps fittingly given the nature of how the First Division was clinched, a 0-0 stalemate proved to be enough following Galway United’s defeat to Athlone Town.

Getting back to the top flight was all that mattered.

colin-healy-and-louis-britton-celebrate Ryan Byrne / INPHO Manager Colin Healy hugs Louis Britton. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Cork had done the hard work, savoured the thrills and spills of an exciting season, and that allowed them the breathing space to succeed in their own time.

As the experienced Kevin O’Connor, in his second spell at the club, puts it. “I don’t think I could have lived with myself if we didn’t get back up after being relegated.”

That was the level of expectation, and pressure, for a club that was Premier Division champions in 2017 – lifting the FAI Cup that same year having also won the trophy the previous season.

The rivalry between Cork and Dundalk dominated most of the last decade but, as fortunes faltered, they did so in a very Rebel way. They didn’t just tail off to mid-table obscurity, they imploded.

The boom and bust cycle of soccer in the county is a well-worn tale of woe.

From Cork Hibs and Celtic thriving, and then going to the wall, to winning the league in 1993 and seeing crowds plummet at Bishopstown before moving back to the Cross.

A Premier Division title in 2005 was followed two years later by the takeover of venture capitalist firm Arkaga.

Within five years a winding up order was granted by the High Court and supporters’ group FORAS (Friends of the Rebel Army Society) purchased the club.

It was from those ashes that they rose again with John Caulfield at the helm as manager from 2014.

Healy and O’Connor were players during that golden era – with the current boss coming towards the end of his playing days and the young left full back embarking on a brief stint across the water with Preston North End before returning and being part of the side that finished bottom in 2020.

kevin-oconnor Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Kevin O'Connor in action. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

O’Connor had headed to the Championship club along with striker Sean Maguire – who remains at Deepdale – and one of the more poignant memories of their time together was when they returned to Aviva Stadium to celebrate on the pitch with their old teammates five years ago.

“It’s important for the club to get to a point where we don’t take the hits too hard and find a balance,” the 27-year-old adds.

Maguire and O’Connor’s transfers would prove crucial to staving off financial devastation years after they left, not to mention Ireland international Alan Browne who was signed by Preston in 2014.

As the walls began to close in back in early 2020, the English-based group Grovemoor (who also own Preston) provided a cash injection required to secure a licence from the FAI by buying the sell-on clauses for Maguire and Browne.

Businessman Trevor Hemmings controlled Grovemoor and passed away last year, not long after the Friends of the Rebel Army Society (FORAS) agreed in October 2020 to sell the club – and its debts – for €1.

john-caulfield-celebrates-with-former-players-kevin-oconnor-and-sean-maguire Ryan Byrne / INPHO O'Connor (left), Maguire (centre) and Caulfield (right) after the 2017 FAI Cup final win. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

As reported by The Irish Examiner, that “stalled due to difficulties in agreeing a deal with Turner’s Cross owners Munster Football Association over City”.

Last week – with celebrations of the league title in full flow – Cork and the Munster FA secured the use of Turner’s Cross for the next 20 years.

Throughout all of this, Healy has got on with his first job in senior football – he worked previously on Tom Mohan’s coaching staff with Ireland’s Under-19s – alongside assistant Richie Holland, first-team coach Declan Coleman and goalkeeper coach Mark McNulty.

“It’s not for me to do everything. I don’t always know what is best or have to be the one speaking. It’s important the other coaches have their say, that they have some control of things too,” Healy says.

“The same with the strength and conditioning, if they feel something is best at a certain time they are the ones who are experts in that area. “It’s on Friday night when I would take over and reinforce the points of all the work we have done in the week.”

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chiedozie-ogbene-celebrates-scoring-a-goal-with-sean-colin-healy Tommy Dickson / INPHO Healy (7) with Chiedozie Ogbene during their time as Cork teammates. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“That is the time to add my personality I suppose, put my stamp on the players. It only has to be a few minutes of talk, I’m not one for big, long speeches that go on 20 minutes. You make your points and let the players focus.”

O’Connor laughs when his element is mentioned, adding: “But you know he is always watching. He might not always be the one running every session but he is there, you know he is always there.

“The big thing is that he looks after the person as much as the player. Especially for young lads now, that’s important. This is a cutthroat business so to know you have that person there looking after you, it means a lot.”

So, too, does being able to reconnect the club with a fanbase that can be as fickle as it is vociferous.

Having that pressure to perform and win is great,” Healy explains. “That is what we want in the League of Ireland. When I was speaking to the players last year, I told them that we have an opportunity to be playing in front of 7,000 if we do things the right way.

“To get the trophy now in front of our own fans, the place will be hopping and buzzing, like what it was under John Caulfield a few years ago.

“We missed that for so long with Covid so to be able to play in front of these fans now, you have to make the most of it because it is a short career. It is why Healy gave his players a few days off after winning the league to celebrate it however they saw fit.

“Absolutely. I said it to them. Go and enjoy it because moments like this do not come often. You want the players to be happy,” he continues. “When you achieve something in the game you deserve to celebrate, so I said ‘on you go, lads, out and enjoy yourselves, you deserve it.’”

colin-healy Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Cork boss Colin Healy will get his hands on the First Division trophy tonight. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Not that Healy was completely cut off from those celebrations. “He joined in himself to be fair for a couple of nights. I’m probably not supposed to have said that, I’ve let that one slip already,” O’Connor laughs.

“But sure look, he’s had a long aul year himself so he might as well enjoy himself too.” Healy took a brief leave of absence from the job at the start of the season for personal reasons before returning to guide the club while all the takeover talk rumbles on in the background.

His contract will be up after tonight’s game – provided it goes ahead given there is a red weather warning in the county – and leading them into the Premier Division remains the ambition.

“My experiences of the last two years is that we have gone from strength to strength. There is a big jump in quality now – players and managers.

“It will be a tough one and hopefully we can get things sorted out soon to look forward to next year and see what we can do.”

Healy has already shown that giving power to the people around him can pay off. Now it’s about strengthening that ethos.

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