Having won the league in 1993 and 2005, was it any surprise that Cork City would land the title in 2017, maintaining their 12-year stretch between titles?
The last three years may have been heartbreaking as City finished runners-up in the title race, but roll the clock back a few years further and such footballing scenarios would have belonged in the realms of fantasy for City fans until the passionate FORAS forced the near-ruined club to survive and then thrive.
Fans of the club will no doubt have the fondest of memories and collection of cult players from the two previous championships, but this one should certainly soothe the soul and cement this side in the club’s folklore for, perhaps, another 12 years at least.
Foundations Laid in 2016 – City Show Intent Early On
City’s preparations for an assault on the 2017 title appeared to start in earnest during the final game of the 2016 season. The Cup final victory was hard fought, but it revived the soldiering spirit of a side whose ego had been battered and bruised over the past three years by Dundalk's successes.
Sean Maguire scored the only goal of that game at Lansdowne Road last November to secure the Cup victory and it was no surprise that the Kilkenny native’s form would prove essential in the race to snatch the title away from this supreme Dundalk side who were looking to equal Shamrock Rovers’ league record of four titles in-a-row.
Cork’s main strength heading into the new season was the fact that they kept the majority of the squad together, adding strength with the addition of the excellent Ryan Delaney and Shane Griffin, while managing to keep hold of Maguire, which proved priceless as things would transpire.
First up for City was a repeat of the Cup final, the season-opening President’s Cup.
The FAI Cup final was a tight, cagey affair. Not so at The Cross back in February, Cork romped to a 3-0 victory – the scene was set.
Winning Ugly – Opening Night in Ballybofey
While all the glamour of the opening-day of the new season centred around Dundalk, as the champions entertained Shamrock Rovers, City found themselves travelling the length of the country to take on a dogged Finn Harps side in shocking conditions at the Ballybofey venue.
And while the television pictures portrayed a high-tempo, entertaining affair at Oriel Park, City slogged their way to their first three points of the season, eventually breaking down the home side on a rain-soaked, winter-ravaged Donegal playing surface.
But the points were secured as the side secured a very ugly win - the sign of a good team, no doubt.
Sean Maguire proved the difference on that opening night as he bagged the only goal of the game. It would become a theme.
Looking Like Champions in March
The following week, City opened up their home campaign with a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Galway, before making it four in a row, beating Drogheda and Sligo.
But then back-to-back fixtures facing Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk would really reveal where this Cork City side were on the grander scheme of things.
A cautious approach to the game in Tallaght showed that City were taking it one game at a time and not getting carried away with their winning start.
Rovers were playing neat and tidy football but the well-organised Cork unit were keeping them at bay.
The game was level at 1-1 going into the second half, and the City defensive unit had to remain resolute to thwart the Hoops. A point probably would have pleased the travelling Rebel Army but a late penalty gave them a chance to take all three. Maguire obliged.
The following week, back at The Cross, City were back to their attacking best and played their way to a well-deserved 2-0 lead at half-time against the defending champions. Karl Sheppard doing the damage with a brace and suddenly there was real daylight atop the table.
Awesome April Sets Up City
Those back-to-back victories over Rovers and Dundalk proved a real catalyst to allow this Cork side show their true quality over the next month.
Cork’s 3-0 victory over Limerick on the last day of March would take them on a goalscoring streak for the next five games where John Caulfield’s side scored 14 goals without conceding.
Cork ended the first round of fixtures with a perfect record of eleven wins out of eleven.
Summer was just starting as Cork began the next round of games with a 5-0 win over Finn Harps, but the league already looked a foregone conclusion.
Eye Off The Ball in Galway
Cork made the trip west to Galway in May looking to make it 13 wins on the bounce.
But Galway made things tough for the league leaders and the struggling side summoned everything they had to fight their way to a hard-earned point.
The unbeaten streak continued but Cork would have earmarked three points from the visit to Eamonn Deacy Park and memories of the 2016 season perhaps revisited this Cork squad, when Caulfield’s side lost valuable points against struggling sides.
Cork would have to wait a week to put things right. They did it in style, beating Drogheda 5-0. The trip to Galway proving a mere wobble on the road to a first league title in 12 years.
Hat-trick Hero Maguire
Any doubts regarding Cork’s title credentials were well and truly blown out of the water as they coasted to another back-to-back bonanza, beating Rovers 4-1, followed by a remarkable 3-0 away win at Oriel Park.
Maguire hit a hat-trick that night in front of the Irish management team and while the result cemented the league title – City now 18 points clear – the performance also made sure that it was now a case of when, not if, the striker would be leaving these shores.
A Continental Distraction
With the league position looking very healthy for Caulfield’s side, City enjoyed the distraction of a Europa League qualifying clash against Estonian side Levadia Tallinn, and that unbeaten run continued, which took City into the next round thanks to home and away victories, with the added bonus of doubling their prize money in the process.
A testing and ultimately unsuccessful encounter with Cypriot side AEK Larnaca ended Cork’s European adventure.
And the games were now coming thick and fast; was fatigue starting to affect the charge to the title?
Farewell to Maguire
In the midst of their Europa exit, City had to contend with a major squad disruption, which saw 20-goal striker Maguire bid farewell to the Rebels as he ventured over to Preston for the next chapter of his career.
City were also hit with the departure of another one of the Turner’s Cross young guns, as Kevin O’Connor joined Maguire on the cross-channel express to Deepdale.
A certain amount of reshuffling would be required within the City starting XI and Maguire’s exit put real pressure on the rest of the team to contribute in the goalscoring department.
Gypsies Curse – No Invincible Season
By the time Cork lined out to take on Bohemians on the last day of July, Caulfield’s side had already played six competitive fixtures throughout the month.
City’s quest for an "invincible" season was two thirds complete, having gone 22 matches unbeaten; surely a home tie against a struggling Bohemians side would be a mere formality for the runaway league leaders?
Not so. The Dublin side proved difficult to break down, were well-organised and when the chance presented itself – in the form of a penalty kick – George Poynton made no mistake.
The unbeaten run eventually ended, more than five months into the campaign. However, a mere handful of points were required to seal their first title in 12 years. Surely that would be bestowed on the Leesiders sooner rather than later.
The Long Road Home
In fact, Cork needed 11 points to win the title following that defeat to Bohs on 31 July. But it would take more than two and a half months to finally secure that scrappy single in the dour 0-0 draw with Derry City.
It may have felt like a long time for the neutral observer, so imagine how arduous the wait for the Turner’s Cross faithful?
Of course, Maguire was missing, and back-to-back defeats to Shamrock Rovers and Limerick, which followed shortly after the 1-0 defeat to Sligo, brought out the unfair one-man team slogans and slurs.
In the meantime, Dundalk maintained a remarkable run of form, which would not allow City completely out of their sight, while the FAI Cup was played out in that period, which staggered the City final stretch.
Hurricane Ophelia threatened to prolong the wait for City as the wild, south-west winds ripped a fair chunk from the roof of the Derrynane Stand.
But The Shed End remained resilient. As it had all season.