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'I had a text on my phone from John Caulfield and that was it really. I didn’t take much convincing'

Cork City assistant manager John Cotter talks his playing days, falling into coaching at Avondale United and success with the Leesiders.

Cotter (left) in the dug-out with Liam Kearney and Caulfield.
Cotter (left) in the dug-out with Liam Kearney and Caulfield.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

BEHIND EVERY GREAT manager, there’s a loyal assistant.

For the past four years, John Cotter has been a vital part of Cork City’s backroom staff in his role as John Caulfield’s right-hand man.

The Leesiders have enjoyed unprecedented success during that time — winning two FAI Cups and the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division as part of a first-ever double in 2017.

But the pair’s relationship and Cotter’s affiliation with his hometown club go back considerably further.

Having lined out for local side Ballincollig and Casement Celtic, he signed for Cork City at 18 and spent a year in the reserves under Cormac Cotter.

The 1997/98 campaign was his first full season in the senior squad, which was then managed by club legend Dave Barry.

“I would have always went to Cork City games as a kid and when they moved to Bishopstown in the mid-90s my house was only five minutes from there,” Cotter recalled earlier this week.

“I remember walking to the European game against Slavia Prague in ‘94. Then when I  signed and started training with the first team, the squad had the likes of John Caulfield, Patsy Freyne, Deccie Daly and Philip Long.

It was great to play with players I had watched growing up. That gave me a good grounding.”

“Dave was very good with how he handled the players,” he adds. “He was always very honest with them, which is something I would agree with. You have to treat players the way you want to be treated yourself.

“He commanded great respect due to his own playing career and he had big characters in the dressing room like John and Deccie too. They were great lads and you always picked things up off them in terms of how they trained and held themselves.”

John Cotter 23/8/1998 During his playing days at City back in 1998. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

The youngster, who began as a centre forward before moving back to midfield later in his career, was part of the City squad that lifted the FAI Cup in 1998. Although he didn’t feature in either the drawn final against Shelbourne or the replay (a 1-0 victory thanks to Derek Coughlan’s header), it remains one of Cotter’s fondest memories.

“I came on as a substitute in a few of the games,” he says. “I remember the first cup final, which was a 0-0 draw.

“The following week I was on the bench for the replay and that was an unbelievable experience with the crowd. Coming back to Cork and seeing the reception we got was unreal as a young fella. I was 20 years of age.”

A year later, City claimed the League Cup with a 2-1 aggregate win over Shamrock Rovers.

“The second leg was played at Turner’s Cross in front of about 10 or 11,000 people. It was incredible that day, Noel Hartigan got the winner. The club had been through a rough couple of years but there was great interest at that stage.”

Source: retroloi/YouTube

Cotter departed at the end of 2001 and joined Munster Senior League side Avondale United a summer later. It was there he linked up with Caulfield, who had taken the manager’s job.

“It was great when John went to Avondale as he had the club as professional as it could be for a non-league set-up. I obviously knew him already from playing but we properly struck up a relationship around that time.

“John wanted players with a bit of experience and Noel Hartigan ended up signing as well. He encouraged us to take charge of the dressing room as well.

“We had a really successful time there and that was a great period. It was a brilliant learning curve as well because that’s where I ended up starting my coaching education.”

Caulfield’s exit from Avondale and move to University College Cork (UCC) opened up a window of opportunity for his captain in 2010. Coaching and management hadn’t been on Cotter’s radar, but he decided to accept the offer.

It wasn’t something I had ever thought about,” he admits. “I was fairly young, about 33, and the club just asked me if I’d do it. They weren’t in a great position at that stage — We had just been beaten by Crumlin United in the Intermediate Cup final and a few players had left.

“But I said ‘Yeah’ and really enjoy it. Like John, it was 24/7 for me and I loved the commitment levels. We were lucky enough to be successful too.”

That last sentence is quite the understatement as Avondale clinched two Munster Senior League titles and three consecutive FAI Intermediate Cups in as many years under Cotter.

“I demanded a lot from the boys, just as we do with the Cork City players now, but it was brilliant. I tried to instill a professionalism as it’s something you have to do if you want to succeed at any level.”


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The Avondale team celebrate Cotter (far left, back row) celebrating his Avondale side's third consecutive FAI Intermediate Cup in 2013. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

At the end of the 2012/13 campaign, Cotter finished up with Avondale and the plan was to concentrate on obtaining his coaching badges, but a message from his old manager changed all that.

Caulfield had agreed to take over at Cork City as a replacement for Tommy Dunne and he was in the hunt for an assistant.

“John was still managing UCC when I left and I had no thoughts of Cork City at that time,” he explains.

“Then one day in November I was in work. I had a text on my phone from John and that was it really. I didn’t take much convincing, once it was offered to me I said ‘Yes’ straight away.”

City had just finished sixth in the League of Ireland’s top tier but the new regime’s arrival produced immediate improvements.  Runners-up three years in-a-row to Dundalk, they finally got the better of the Lilywhites in 2017 thanks largely to a 22-match unbeaten run.

What has become one of Irish football’s great rivalries also brought us meetings in the past three FAI Cup finals, with Cork 2-1 up heading into the new season.

“When I came in with John, I had a one-year-old child, I had left a full-time position and John had left his job too,” explains Cotter. “We just said we’d have a right go, put everything into it and be totally committed. I think the players saw that and responded.

You need the type of rivalry we’ve had with Dundalk over the past number of years as it keeps you hungry and motivated. It was great to win the league last year but it wasn’t about beating Dundalk, it was about doing the double for the club and the supporters. That was a brilliant way to cap off the four years.”

On Caulfield, he adds: “John is an unbelievable man-manager and the players have been incredible. The group we’ve had over the past four years have been great and John is good at dealing with them. They can go to him about anything and they have a super relationship.”

So what are Cotter’s main roles as assistant boss?

“I help John with anything he wants. He does the team shape, but we look after training and the rest of it. With team selection and tactics, I’d always give my opinion. John will take it on board and the final decision is obviously his.

“In fairness to John, he’s very accommodating. He’d always give you a chance to have your say. I’d be the type of person that thinks if I was manager I’d want my assistant to be honest and straight with me. So I’d always be straight with him, whether he agrees or not.

“It’s pointless bullshitting about it and he appreciates that. That’s the only way to be. We’ve always had a good relationship that way.”

Clubs around the country have been returning to pre-season over the past 10 days ahead of the league’s restart next month.

As double winners, City face a number of challenges to remain the top club in the country but they’ve embarked on a recruitment drive to freshen up the squad.

“You’ve got that expectation now,” Cotter says. “It’s a healthy thing to have and it doesn’t bother me. It drives me on. Every team is going to up their game again. We just have to keep performing at the highest level, and to do that we must keep the players hungry and motivated.

“That’s what we’ve done by signing a number of new players for this year. They want to win things too so that keeps the dressing room fresh.

“In the last few days that we’ve been back, they have settled in great. We have a really good dressing room and we’ve been fortunate enough with the lads we have here.”

Cork are set for the Champions League qualifiers this summer and progressing a couple of rounds or qualifying for the Europa League group stages would secure an enormous windfall, as Dundalk found out in 2016.

“Financially, for any club, that’s where the real money is,” says Cotter.

“It would be great to progress and do ourselves and the league justice. You look at what Dundalk did a couple of years ago and we got through a few rounds in the Europa League the same year. It doesn’t just help Dundalk or Cork City, it gives the league more of a profile.

Europe is still months away though so we’ll give it a bash when it comes up. They’re brilliant experiences.”

The current management team are doing an outstanding job and Caulfield appears as driven as ever but if the manager’s job was to become available in the long-term, Cotter accepts that it would be hard to turn down.

“It’s not something I think about but down the years, it would be an unbelievable thing to do,” he says. “I’m just motivated to do the job I’m doing but anyone who says they wouldn’t be interested would be lying.

“I’m absolutely delighted to be doing what I’m doing, which is helping John and everyone at the club. I’m loving it. The rain was pissing down today and we all got drenched but what else would you want to be doing? It’s the best job you could have and I’m extremely privileged.”

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