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'I was getting less money to take over Cork City than I was in Diageo'

John Caulfield on a League of Ireland career in which he’s frequently had to defy limitations.

John Caulfield is a former Cork City player and manager.
John Caulfield is a former Cork City player and manager.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

JOHN CAULFIELD is one of the most successful figures in the League of Ireland’s history.

You could argue that the fact he started out as a right-back and transformed himself into one of the most prolific goalscorers that the domestic game has ever seen is a metaphor for his career at the large, as he’s constantly been forced to make the best out of unpromising situations.

As a player with Cork City, his honours included a Premier Division title in 1993 and an FAI Cup in 1998.

He also took part in many famous games, notably the European ties when Cork gave real scares to top sides in Bayern Munich and Galatasaray — he suggests the 1-1 draw at home to the former might just be the greatest result ever for an Irish club in Europe.

He also finished his career — along with long-time strike partner Pat Morley — as Cork’s joint all-time leading scorer on 129 goals.

And as a manager, he has enjoyed similar success, winning the FAI Cup in 2016 and 2017, with the latter coming the same year Cork City also secured the Premier Division title.

Without Caulfield’s team, Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk would surely have been even more dominant than they were. The Leesiders frequently provided the Lilywhites with a stern challenge, as they finished runners-up to them on four occasions under Caulfield, with the teams also contesting four FAI Cup finals on the bounce between 2015 and 2018, winning two apiece.

More recently, Caulfield has helped rejuvenate a flagging Galway side. Having finished second in the First Division last season before suffering defeat in the play-offs, they will undoubtedly be one of the favourites for promotion in 2022.

Yet for all his success, as with most individuals who spend a long time in Irish football, the league’s financial restrictions and instability have continually impacted Caulfield’s career both as a player and manager.

During his playing days, Caulfield was always part-time, balancing travelling across the country with work as a sales rep initially for Bulmers and then Diageo.

This conflict between operating in the League of Ireland under such limitations is a key theme of Caulfield’s new book, ‘Rebel Heart,’ which he has written in collaboration with sports journalist Robert Redmond.

“Nowadays, if I look at my daughters, it’s very hard to explain how different the late ‘80s and ‘90s were to now,” he tells The42. “Everyone in the last 15 years has been born with a mobile phone in their hands and social media is the norm. Whereas you couldn’t be found if you went missing in the ‘90s.

“That [Cork] title-winning team, the incredible bond, spirit and friendship, we only had a squad of 16 players. That’s just the way it was and you were 11 players, two subs.

“Every week, from the country to Dublin, it was a four-hour journey and a four-hour journey back. Sligo, Derry, Dundalk were like two-day trips because there were no dual carriageways. So you went through every town, every village. It was fascinating.”

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In the early stages of his time as a player at Cork, they were a struggling team usually hovering towards the bottom half of the table.

Gradually though, they got better and in 1991, suffered a heartbreaking final-day 1-0 loss to Dundalk in a title decider.

Two seasons later, though, they finally tasted success, beating Shelbourne 3-2 in a play-off at the RDS, as Cork City were confirmed as champions for the first time in their history.

“As players, we spent so much time in each other’s company and we became really close, and I suppose ultimately in 1993 we became a winning team. It had been 3-4 years of trying to build that mentality.

“We had tremendous quality players, brilliant footballers, it was just a different era. But the real thing I suppose was our friendship and that bond and the strength it gave us — we were a really together team. You could see over those number of years, a lot of us were together for a long time.”

Caulfield says he wasn’t emotional when it came to leaving Cork as he could be content in the knowledge that he had a “brilliant” career. He did his coaching badges with the FAI in the late 1990s when Noel O’Reilly and Brian Kerr were in charge of the technical department.

Initially, the young manager worked in amateur football. He spent several years at Avondale United, winning multiple Munster Senior League titles and FAI Intermediate Cups during his time there.

“You’re dealing with amateur players who were training two nights a week and playing at the weekend,” he says. “They all had their day jobs and it was just a great learning experience from managing people. I suppose ultimately, it showed me you have to work incredibly hard, you have to be straight with people and you can’t compromise when you’re managing. You go with your gut feeling. You go with what you think is the right decision.

“And you might be under pressure to play someone or some player might put you under pressure or someone at the club might put you under pressure to play someone. But if you don’t think it’s the right thing to do, don’t do it.

“I suppose I learned a lot of that in non-league and I also learned a lot about managing people and players. You’ve guys coming late to training, guys missing for a match at the weekend because they’re going away with family and stuff. You find it hard to understand because you’re so passionate about management that you think the most important thing is to win the next game, which it is, but you’re still in amateur football.

“A lot of these guys are only playing for social occasions as opposed to you being the manager and thinking it’s life or death.”

john-caulfield-12121999 Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Caulfield was similarly successful with University College Cork and also had a stint out of football between the two jobs, which he admits to finding tough going.

“I suppose if you think of it, first time in my life I decided to take a break. I thought it would be a good idea. My kids at home were in secondary school and they were going: ‘Jesus, we haven’t seen you during the week in our lives and now you’re home every night.’

“But I thought it would be good and maybe it was in a way because I didn’t appreciate how much the game meant to me and how much I loved training regularly for a match at the weekend. I lost that energy of the buzz of training, meeting players, trying to get better and so when I packed up for maybe the first few weeks, it was okay.

“But certainly after 6-8 weeks, I was busting a gut to get back in. If you think of it, all my life, I’d always been playing football, I’d always be doing something, So I think my family were happy to see me going back to UCC.”

Now 57, Caulfield has been involved in football in some capacity for most of his life, but it was only when he was appointed Cork City boss in November 2013 that he finally got a chance to work in the sport in a full-time capacity.

Others in his position might have turned down the opportunity. Caulfield instead chose to leave a steady job with Diageo for the notoriously tenuous world of football management. Did he consider it a big risk at the time?

“I suppose when you say it like that, it was. I didn’t see it that way. I know there were lots of concerns with my family. But I felt that you have that period in your life where things happen and I felt at that time, I had to go for it. I just felt it was my chance and if I didn’t do it, in 10 years’ time, I’d be looking back going: ‘Why didn’t I do it?’

“Did I see the risk? People did say that to me — if it didn’t go well, I’d be sacked after six months. But to be honest, I didn’t [think that way]. I heard it being said but I didn’t pass it any heed.

“In hindsight, it was a risk. I had to leave a very good job in Diageo. I was getting less money to take over Cork City than I was in Diageo. So there were things that didn’t make sense. But I just felt for myself, it was the right time and I had to go for it.”

Was there a backup plan in case he was sacked after six months?

“I had worked for Diageo and C and C and in patching, so I had been on the road and I had over a period of 30 years, good jobs.

“So I suppose the plan was if the worst comes to worst, and it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back and get work again. I didn’t have any fear about that. But was I giving it much thought? I wasn’t, to be honest.”

john-caulfield Caulfield took over as Cork manager ahead of the 2014 season. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Yet any doubts about Caulfield’s ability to manage at that level were soon assuaged.

In his first season, he guided the team, who had finished sixth the previous season, to the brink of the title, only to lose out to Dundalk on the final day of the 2014 season, in a remarkably similar repeat of the heartbreak he suffered as a player 23 years earlier.

“I wanted to get the crowds back and have a passionate team because I knew how good that was as a player.

“So my enthusiasm at the very start was to get back to having a team that the city and county were proud of, and if they came through the gates and saw them playing, they’d leave and go: ‘They gave everything for the club.’

“Even halfway through that season, what I felt was that the first couple of games, there was a bit of a novelty, but certainly by game 7,8 or 9 of that season, I sensed: we’re going to do okay here, we’re going to be in top 3 or 4, and felt things had come together pretty quickly and were on track.

“So I think that very first season was probably the most incredible season, because the club had gone from nowhere straight to low budget, five amateur players in the squad, most guys on real low wages, and we made it to the end of the season to nearly winning the league.”

The team only grew from that memorable 2014 season and Caulfield built a strong squad full of talented players, most notably future Ireland international Sean Maguire, whose goals were key to the team peaking in that 2016-17 period, culminating in their double triumph.

After a move to Dundalk failed to work out, Maguire’s career had looked in danger of petering out, but Caulfield and others at the club helped restore his confidence, propelling the young striker to new heights in the process and eventually paving the way for his move to Preston. 

“I liked what I saw regarding Seani Maguire. He was at a crossroads and I didn’t have any magic solution or formula for him.

“But he was a very humble person and a lovely guy and he was low on confidence. Certainly, I could see that I could help him and get his confidence up. But to be fair to him, he went out and just turned himself into a different player because he worked and trained so hard. We pushed and pushed him, and he became what he is because of what he did himself.”

The famous rivalry between Cork and Dundalk created tension both on and off the field at times. This extended to the relationship between Caulfield and Kenny, notably during a row over a potential Karl Sheppard move between the clubs that ultimately fell through at the end of the 2017 season.

john-caulfield-and-stephen-kenny Managers John Caulfield and Stephen Kenny at the end of the 2015 FAI Cup final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Yet Caulfield downplays any sense of lingering animosity between the pair. He still has great respect for Kenny, backing him for the Ireland job in 2018 after Martin O’Neill’s departure and he adds that the two of them had “a really good chat” at last month’s FAI Cup final.

On the rivalry between the two teams, he says: “I was just in Cork, trying to get a passionate team to represent the club and do well. Our finances were much lower, we weren’t paying the [big] wages, because we didn’t have them, unfortunately.

“In professional football, you need money to invest and in Ireland, you have players that earn 42-week contracts, you think of it like: ‘There’s no [other] job in the country [that only offers that].’ If someone gets a job in any employment, it’s 52 weeks and football is the poor relation.

“But that’s just the way it was, you just got on with it. People often say: ‘If Cork weren’t there, Dundalk would have had a clear run and won four or five doubles in a row.’ Possibly, they would have.

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“But we were doing everything we could to see could we challenge and ultimately, then of course there becomes tension between the players, tension between the managers and management staff because it’s us and them.

“We had beaten them in a couple of President’s Cup games at the start of the season but the biggest turning point for us was winning the cup in 2016. It prevented Dundalk from doing the double, we had won the cup, but it had given us the confidence for 2017 and that’s where the double came out of, I think.

“I meet up with several of their management staff and we all have a great laugh and banter about it now. But with any two rivals in any sport, you’re always going to have that healthy aggression.”

Cork eventually experienced a downward spiral and Caulfield lost his job after an underwhelming start to the 2019 season. It then went from bad to worse in his absence, as indicated by the fact that the club finished sixth in the First Division last year.

He puts the club’s dramatic descent down to a mixture of financial issues, inexperience at boardroom level and failure to replace key players.

“I think in that five-year period, we had about 11 players that went to England at different levels. But trying to replace them — that three or four weeks after the season was always the most difficult because players are out of contract, finances are so low in this country and most of them are frees and can go elsewhere.

“And that’s why our game is crying out for investment. When I hear someone saying that Philip O’Doherty is taking over Derry and he’s putting huge money in, some people say: ‘Oh, it’s a disgrace, they’ll have all the money.’ Our game needs money.

“The more money we can invest into the game, the better for our league because our league should be a proper industry where if you’re employed as a manager, coach or player, everyone should be entitled to at least get paid 52 weeks. But that doesn’t happen with 90% of our clubs and it’s purely based on finance.

“And a lot of clubs are [run] by committees, supporter groups, everyone with their heart in the right place. But ultimately, the more business people we can get involved in League of Ireland football at the top level, the better for everyone.

“In 2014 when I had taken over, [Cork] were about 150 grand in debt. So there weren’t any major financial problems in the club but certainly, there was an element of panic and as it progressed, through 2019 to 2020, the hole got bigger and bigger.”

sean-maguire-after-playing-his-last-game-for-the-club Cork's Sean Maguire after playing his last game for the club. Source: Philip Soteriou/INPHO

Caulfield has been involved with Cork City as a player, manager and fan for most of his life, and as with many League of Ireland clubs, the Leesiders have had a recurring tendency to effectively go from boom to bust pretty quickly.

“Looking in, the disappointment of seeing how quickly the club had gone down — in ‘88, ‘95, I’d seen this happen before and I was trying to build the club in a structure that this type of scenario wouldn’t happen again. But it is what it is.”

He continues: “When I came out [of the Cork job], I didn’t work for a while. And I went back working then the following November, I started doing some work with Diageo funnily enough for a short spell.

“I was looking to do a bit of work where I lived in the area and I went back to them. Then Covid hit.

“I suppose like everyone else, we were all at home and it was such a serious time for people being locked in at home, it was: how do people survive mentally? I found it was a novelty for a few weeks and after 2-3 months, it becomes mentally very challenging in terms of how do people not work. If they lose their jobs, how do they deal with it? And to not have a target in the morning to get up to do something [is difficult].

“To be honest, I was involved with a couple of people looking at potential takeovers of some clubs in Ireland. So I was working away at that. I’d been involved with two consortiums, and I had done a bit of work in that period during Covid.

“Then in late August 2020, out of the blue, I got a call, just to see would I be interested [in the Galway job]. And to be honest, it was a total shock.

“I was just so enthused that they wanted me to get back involved, and where they were trying to bring the club. And with my experience, I was thinking, it’s a one-club city and I just saw lots of potential.”

And despite the bad times as well as good that Caulfield has experienced over the course of many years in Irish football, he remains cautiously optimistic when it comes to the future of the sport in this country.

“I think that there’s a great opportunity now with the younger market. Clubs are marketing towards families and teenagers, and I think there’s more focus on that.

“I still believe the FAI has to be restructured, we need TV money and higher standards from licensing. We have too many clubs and the licensing standards have to be higher, they have to be implemented from the top.

“It’s like the manager of a club, you’re setting standards and at the top, in our association, unfortunately, there’s been no standards towards League of Ireland. The pluses are that with all this nonsense and hassle with the FAI and the debt, League of Ireland clubs were getting so little from the association that it didn’t have that impact on them. But it showed you how distant the association was from the League of Ireland.

“I suppose the best way, to sum up, is that, if you’re a kid in Ireland, if he thinks of professional football, he thinks of England.

“A kid in Galway, if it’s any other sport, he’ll think of playing for his county. Why shouldn’t we have a certain number of fully professional League of Ireland clubs, where a kid can start off, come all the way through your system, and work with the local schoolboy or amateur clubs? A fella [should be able to] see that he can still make a living from professional football, not at the level [of the Premier League] in England, but certainly the level maybe of League One or League Two.

“We have a new CEO [Jonathan Hill]. He’s been very impressive since he’s come in, it’s been difficult with Covid. The FAI have brought out their new strategic plan. We’ve seen all this before. So we’ll wait and see.

“But it will show whether there’s a serious [intent] from the association to make it a proper professional league.”

‘Rebel Heart’ by John Caulfield is published by Hero Books. More info here.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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