Big two clash set to lay down marker for season
Three games played, three wins, nine goals scored. Cork are out of the blocks like a 100 metre sprinter for the second year running.
Like Usain Bolt in his prime, it is hard to see how anyone can keep up with the consistency and dominance that has been set in the last few years by Cork and Dundalk.
After a somewhat nervy finish to the 2017 campaign, it seems that John Caulfield has adapted well to life post Sean Maguire. With such a big void to fill, Caulfield has changed the dynamic of his side.
Cork have been renowned in recent years for their ability to soak up pressure and punish sides on the counter attack with the speed and finishing ability of Maguire.
This season I have seen a change in approach. In Graham Cummins, Cork have an excellent focal point but do not possess a significant threat in behind opposition defences. For this reason, they have had to look towards the ability of Gearoid Morrissey and co in midfield to supply the architects in Kieran Sadlier and Barry McNamee to unlock opposition defences.
With the likes of Sadlier and Karl Sheppard naturally coming off the flanks the width is supplied in abundance from Shane Griffin and Steven Beattie.
As we have already seen in the three league games and the President’s Cup, Cork now have a number of different routes to goal with what seems a more expansive, creative style which opponents will struggle to deal with.
Stephen Kenny’s ability to develop players has once again left him the victim of his own success. Dundalk have begun the new campaign in transition, following the departure of a number of David McMilan, Patrick McEleney and Niclas Vemmelund at the end of the 2017 season. Kenny’s sides have always had a defined style of play and often it takes time for new recruits to adapt.
With some of their new signings not having played in the League of Ireland before, it may take a few weeks before we see Dundalk at their best. That said, Dundalk still have key personnel from their title-winning campaigns, in particular Stephen O’Donnell. His fitness will be critical to their success.
When O’Donnell plays, he acts like a conductor, orchestrating others around him. His ability to dictate games, knowing when to quicken the tempo and knowing when to slow it down, is vital for their style of play and enables them to dominate possession and games. He returns to the squad for the fixture on Friday.
It is in the final third where Dundalk with have to answer questions, with much pressure lying on the shoulders of Patrick Hoban to replace the goals of Dave McMillan. Similar to Cummins, his supply will be critical to his success.
Deploying Robbie Benson further up the pitch would be something I would like to see. A genius both on and off it, his creativity and an eye for a pass is as good as there is in the league. Should he be granted more of a licence to roam, he will have the key to unlocking defences.
With others such as Dylan Connolly, Michael Duffy, Jamie McGrath and Ronan Murray in his ranks, Kenny has great variety and depth to his squad.
Similar to Cork they have a number of different avenues to goal and should they click like they did against Limerick; they possess a potent threat to all.
The consistency and experience of both Cork and Dundalk’s defensive units set them apart from the chasing pack. Their ability to minimise mistakes, manage games and churn out results has been crucial to their success.
Without doubt we have seen a gap appear in recent seasons. The undoubted quality and hunger for success of the players is proving difficult for others squads to compete with.
The fruits of successful European campaigns are certainly helping solidify their sustained success, but the job of both managers is not to be underestimated.
Their ability to recruit, motivate, innovate and improve is ultimately driving the gap between them and the others.
The League of Ireland is now mirroring that of many others, where competitions are being dominated by the top two teams. It is difficult to see how anyone can work their way into competing with Cork and Dundalk.
The question now is whether we will have a two-horse race or another Cork cakewalk - in that respect Friday night should be very revealing.