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'The result was tough to take... we just wanted to get out of there as quickly as we could'

Cork City skipper John Dunleavy is ready for Friday’s top-of-the-table clash with champions Dundalk.

“IT’S NOT A nice place to be at all,” he admits.

Cork City were 90 minutes away from being champions of Ireland. To do so, they needed to avoid defeat in the final game of the season; a difficult task at Oriel Park against Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk. Too difficult, as it transpired.

In the confines of the away dressing room afterwards, John Dunleavy and his Cork City team-mates were alone with their thoughts; of what might have been, instead of reflecting on a fine season during which they exceeded expectations.

They can appreciate the part they played in the 2014 Premier Division title race a little more now with the benefit of hindsight, but it still doesn’t cushion the blow of having come so close and failed last October.

Johnny Dunleavy at the end of the game A disconsolate John Dunleavy after last October's decisive loss to Dundalk at Oriel Park. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

As the City players tried to summon the energy to gather up their baggage — both physical and emotional — the celebrations were in full swing in the opposing dressing room. Leaving without silverware, John Caulfield’s players just wanted to get home. The journey back down south seemed longer than normal that night.

“We were all gutted, naturally enough, and we just wanted to get out of there as quickly as we could,” recalls Dunleavy, who had hoped to be the first Cork City captain since Dan Murray in 2005 to get his hands on the league trophy that night.

“We had a long bus-trip home ahead of us. The result was tough to take, unfortunately we came out on the wrong side of it. You can see in that photo [above] that it definitely hurts, but it’s something you have to store away in your back pocket and learn from.

“I suppose it was the first time most of us had played in a game of that magnitude, where it’s the last game of the season and absolutely everything is on the line. There was so much different about the build-up in the week of the game — people ringing you to ask for tickets, the buzz around the city, the buzz at the ground.

“It’ll stand to us, particularly the young lads in the squad who hadn’t experienced anything like that before. We have to make sure that we put that to good use this season.”

It won’t make up for the pain of missing out on the league title six months ago, but a win over the defending champions at Turner’s Cross this Friday night would certainly be an enormous step in the right direction as Cork City aim to end a 10-year wait for top-flight honours.

Victory against Dundalk on Leeside would see City overtake the Lilywhites at the summit of the table, so that’s sufficient motivation in itself. But are they still being driven forward by the hurt from last season’s dramatic finale as well?

Dunleavy: “I wouldn’t necessarily say so. Last season was a massive stepping stone for us. Nobody saw us challenging but we surprised a lot of people; maybe not ourselves, but not many other people gave us a chance, yet we were there until the end. This season we have to build on that.

“We’re aiming to challenge for all the trophies. We know how tough it’s going to be against Dundalk; they’re the champions and they’ve started this season really well. But we know the quality we’ve got in our squad too and if we put in a good performance there’s no reason why we can’t come away with the right result.”

Johnny Dunleavy John Dunleavy joined Cork City in 2012 after two years with Wolves. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The title won’t be won or lost in Cork on Friday, but there’s more than three points at stake — particularly for the hosts. The winners will be rewarded with a significant psychological boost to their morale which will fuel them for the next few weeks of the title race, and Cork City need that more than the visitors do.

In their three meetings in 2014, City failed to take a single point. It was the results between the teams that ultimately decided the destination of the league trophy. There’s a long way to go, but Cork City need to believe that they can out-last Dundalk this time.

Dunleavy plays down the mental significance that might accompany a win, but emerging victorious from this first duel of the campaign will instil that belief.

“I was talking to somebody the other day about whether one game can be life-changing. You could say maybe a World Cup final is, but I don’t think any other game is on its own. A sequence of games can be life-changing.

“There won’t be any trophies won this early in the season, but it’s important that we set out our stall, put on a good display and continue to maintain our level of performance to lay down a marker.”

When it comes to portraying the SSE Airtricity League in a positive light, it’ll be difficult to trump the scene that’ll await the RTÉ cameras in Cork on Friday night.

A packed Turner’s Cross playing host to the country’s top two teams, the kind of memorable night that makes loyal supporters feel like they’re being rewarded for the many occasions when the TV cameras weren’t there, the tickets were easier to come by and the entertainment wasn’t quite so entertaining.

Corty City supporters There's a packed house expected on Leeside on Friday for Cork City versus Dundalk. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“You can feel the buzz around the city at the moment, around the club in general,” Dunleavy says. “There’s probably going to be seven or eight thousand people at the ground, which you just don’t get anywhere else in the League of Ireland. I’ve loved my time down here, there’s nowhere like it. Playing in front of a crowd like that at Turner’s Cross, we’re all really looking forward to Friday night.

“You have to approach every game in the same way, to an extent. They’re all worth the same amount of points. But by the same token, with a game like this, the ground will be packed, the atmosphere will be incredible and the adrenaline is going to be pumping, so it feels slightly different in that way.”

As for Dundalk, Dunleavy says he hasn’t seen much of the champions so far this season. They learned more than enough about each other last year, after all.

“They’ve started the season well. Friday night will be tough, they’re a quality side, but we know how good we are too. It’s in our own hands.”

First published at 16.10 on 22 April

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Paul Dollery

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