When one thinks of rivalries in the League of Ireland, the one which likely springs to mind first is the eternal mutual hatred of Dublin pair Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers. However, in recent years, one pairing above all else has proven itself worthy of being dubbed Ireland’s version of El Classico. Anyone with an interest in the league is likely to cancel or postpone other plans when the juggernauts of Cork City and Dundalk collide.
The duo have dominated Irish football in this decade. The last four league titles have been divided between the pair, with Cork finally upstaging their Louth rivals after three years of playing second fiddle. Even the FAI Cup has been the sole reserve of the duo of late, with each of the last three finals being contested between John Caulfield’s and Stephen Kenny’s teams. They lock horns at Cork’s Turners Cross this Friday night and once again it is a meeting worthy of every shred of publicity it gets.
A third of the way through the 2018 season, the teams are tied at the summit on 28 points each, a sharp contrast to this time last year when a Sean Maguire-inspired Cork had left everyone else trailing in their wake. While the Leesiders hold the two main domestic trophies, it is the Lilywhites who claimed bragging rights when the sides last met in early March with a 2-1 victory at Oriel Park. That will no doubt be on the minds of the 5,000 or so spectators that are expected to pass through the turnstiles at Turners Cross this weekend, as well as the two managers whose respect for one another masks a burning desire to be top dog.
In a league that has had more than its fair share of negative publicity, it is to Cork and Dundalk’s eternal credit that they have set standards that no other clubs in the country could manage in many a year. It may have been Shamrock Rovers who blazed a trail for the League of Ireland by reaching the Europa League group stage in 2011, but even they couldn’t maintain as prolonged a period of excellence as the Leesiders or Lilywhites. Ever since that final day clash in 2014 when Dundalk beat Cork 2-0 at Oriel Park to leapfrog their opponents and take the title at the final fence, the two have been the standard bearers for the rest of the league. Dundalk set the bar high by winning three titles in a row, plus a double in 2015, as well as getting to the brink of qualifying for the Champions League group stage the following year. Cork knew where the bar was and reached it by thwarting their rivals in the 2016 cup final and doing the double last year, dropping just two points in 18 games prior to the June mid-season break.
Another testament to the brilliance of the two teams is the number of players who excelled at either Turners Cross or Oriel Park to pave the way to a move to England and international recognition with Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland side. An international cap might have eluded Richie Towell, the star of Dundalk’s 2015 title triumph, but Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle and the aforementioned Maguire have all made the move to a decent Preston side in the English Championship and made their Ireland debuts. Patrick McEleney, Dundalk’s best player last season, has also been tempted across the Irish Sea, as has Brentford youngster Chiedozie Ogbene, who impressed at Cork but moved to Limerick in search of more regular football, which he duly received as he excelled in a relegation-threatened team last year to get his move to England.
One thing that has been notable about the meetings of Cork and Dundalk in recent years is that, with the exception of Cork’s 3-0 win at Oriel Park last June, the pair have always been well matched. Predictions as to Friday night’s result will vary, but very few would anticipate anything other than a close contest. A win for either would not be decisive in the title race, but it would lay down a real marker and open up a three-point lead. The switch to a 10-team league for 2018 means that they will meet twice more in the competition before the season is out, something that will meet with the approval of neutrals who savour the fierce competitiveness of the two.
Friday’s game will barely register outside of the island, but if Ireland had a Sky Sports-style broadcaster, it would be marketing this match with all the gladiatorial fervour of Manchester United v Liverpool, Celtic v Rangers or Real Madrid v Barcelona. This is Ireland’s El Classico. This is two tribes going to war. There is a rivalry between the pair, but it is of the healthy nature. Amid the points-scoring, there is a great respect between the sets of supporters, for the success of one drives on the other to raise their standards even higher – and Irish football is much the better for it.