Club legend Deccie on a special time to be a Red
The first man to captain a Cork City side to a League of Ireland title believes it may take years before the scale of the club’s achievements this season are recognised.
What skipper John Dunleavy gets to do this year, lifting the League of Ireland trophy, the highest honour in Irish domestic football, Declan Daly achieved 24 years ago, leading City to their first ever league title when Noel O’Mahony’s side made the breakthrough in 1993. A player renowned for his passion on the field, these days Daly retains that passion as a Turner’s Cross regular.
And he says he will never forget what he has seen on Leeside this season. “I think people lose sight of what they did at the start of the season,” says Daly. “To be honest, I don’t think the achievements of this team will be fully realised until it’s all over. It could be years before we really grasp what they have done. I mean, to go through the first 22 league games, and only drop two points? That’s unheard of.
“Obviously they couldn’t keep up that pace; if you look at the record of Bohemians of winning 15 in a row, that went back to the 1920s, almost a century ago.
“The club was always going to hit a rough patch along the way — they lost two of the starting XI in mid-season when Sean Maguire and Kevin O’Connor left — but I think they’ve still been exceptional. After all the goals that Maguire got — I mean, even a club as strong as Barcelona wouldn’t be the same team if you took out Messi or Suarez halfway through the season!
“But I always felt after the start they made that they were going to win the league. Even when they hit that rough patch, the performance against Dundalk in the 1-1 draw in September was something else, under that pressure. They’ve been phenomenal.”
Daly was still part of the City squad when two of the current playing staff were making their first steps into the big time.
“Alan Bennett and Mark McNulty were just breaking into the squad in my last years in the squad,” says Daly.
“Bennett won’t thank you for mentioning that he played with me! But to be fair to Alan he always looked destined for the top. Alan had aptitude, application, ability, and belief — a real strength of mind.”
Since hanging up his boots for the club, Daly has become a familiar face in the stands at Turner’s Cross.
“I’ve been going to the Cross as a player and as a fan since around 1990 at this stage,” says Daly.
“When I retired as a player, I used to go there with my son and my father and now I go there with my son Conor.
“It’s like a ritual. I absolutely love it. Every year I can’t wait until the new season starts. And already with a few games to go until this season ends and I’m wondering what I’m going to do on the Friday nights, just waiting for the new season to start again.”
Friday nights at the Cross are more than just a chance to see the league champions. It’s also a place where Daly meets those that soldiered alongside him in the 1990s.
“Most of us who played together on the team that won the league in 1993 and from those years actually go down to Turner’s Cross as supporters, and that’s where we meet up.
“Turner’s Cross is a special place, and the atmosphere created right through this season has been unbelievable.”
City may be the best sup- ported club in the League of Ireland but silverware has been hard to come by down through the years.
The first title came in 1993 but it would be another 12 years for their next success and another 12 until this season that they can now call themselves champions once again.
Just like Cork City’s class of 2017, Daly knows all about getting to the top the hard way. In 1991, Cork were pipped at the post — by Dundalk, of all clubs, suffered a shattering 1-0 home defeat to the Lillywhites on the last day of the 1991 league season in front of 10,000 fans to miss out on the title.
Time soothes, but the agony of that defeat to Dundalk never really goes away.
“Back then, in the old dressing rooms at Turner’s Cross, you could see right into the opposition dressing room,” recalls Daly.
“After the match, I remember looking across into the Dundalk dressing room and they were celebrating, the champagne was being sprayed around in the showers. Meanwhile there we were, so down, after looking like champions for so long that season.
“The difference in emotions was incredible. You learn a lot from winning but you learn a lot losing too. When you’ve been down so low, the highs are so much better.”
Daly has worked in finance virtually all his adult life but even the Ulster Bank senior manager wouldn’t have had the number crunching skills to have worked out how City managed to claim that first ever League of Ireland title in 1993.
City finished level on points with Bohs and Shelbourne — Bohs, who lost their last game of the season, actually had the best goal difference but rules then did not allow the title to be won on goal difference.
After a three-way play-off the teams could not be separated, so after a second series of games the title went to Cork, climaxing on a famous night at the RDS.
“It was like the season that went on forever,” recalls Daly. “Bohs could have won it on the last day of the regular season by drawing at Dundalk, and Tom McNulty, who had scored to win the league at Turner’s Cross, actually scored for Dundalk to send it to play-off. You couldn’t make it up really.
“I remember the play-offs just seemed to go on and on, and you went through every range of emotions. “There was times when it seemed we had blown it and then another result would mean we were back in it. When we won it at the RDS, it was just an incredible feeling.”
The class of 1993 didn’t win another League of Ireland title; by the time the next came around in 2005, they had all retired. So what now for the class of 2017? Daly strikes a positive note. “John has got a strong team behind him, and now they’ve brought in some big names into the youth set-up. The likes of Colin Healy, Cormac Cotter, Billy Woods, and Dan Murray.
“Every year since John has come in, the team has improved its performances and I don’t see that trend changing. They’ve strengthened the playing squad each year and I see that happening again next season.
“This is a special time to be a City fan. I played from 1985 to 2003 and in that time I played in two cup finals. This team has just won the league and is playing in its third cup final in a row. The future looks very bright.
“John Caulfield has said this is a special time for the club, and he’s right. We’ve never had anything like this before.”
Top, members of the Cork City league winning team of 1993 at a 20th anniversary reunion at the Cork International Airport hotel – back from left, Philip Long, Cormac Cotter, Stephen Napier, Paul Bannon, Anthony Buckley, Liam Murphy and Dave Barry,...