DFC | Like Arsenal in 2002, Dundalk FC can dethrone the champions in their own backyard on Friday night

Manchester United 2001, Cork City 2017
Arsenal 2002, Dundalk 2018??

In an interview with The Argus this week, Patrick Hoban likened the Dundalk FC and Cork City rivalry to the ferocious battles that took place between Manchester United and Arsenal in the late nineties and early noughties.

It’s a pretty fair comparison to make. Players have come and go on either side but this is the fifth successive season that Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk and John Caulfield’s Cork have duked it out for the title while United and Arsenal — with Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger the two constants — went toe-to-toe for the best part of eight years.

For United in 2001, you can also see Cork in 2017. A blistering start which saw them win 21 of their opening 22 games helped Caulfield’s side coast to the league title, the Leesiders all but wrapping things up with more than four months of the season still to play after Sean Maguire’s hat-trick at Oriel Park last June. Seventeen years earlier, United enjoyed a similar stroll to the Premiership, Alex Ferguson’s men effectively crowned champions after beating the Gunners 6–1 at Old Trafford with 11 games still to play.

The tables turned the following season and if you are an Arsenal fan — or a Dundalk fan for that matter — 2002 will no doubt hold a special place in your heart. Despite starting as heavy favourites to retain their crown, United faltered and a run of five defeats in seven games did them untold damage. A return of just three wins from their last eight league games suggests that Cork are unravelling in the same way.

In contrast, Arsenal went on a stupendous run, winning 13 league games on the trot — sound familiar? A Sylvain Wiltord goal ended United’s three-year reign as champions as Arsenal won 1–0 at Old Trafford in the second last game of the season.

Dundalk can pull off a similar feat on Friday night. A win at Turner’s Cross won’t mathematically secure the title but it would take something even more extraordinary than a Devon Loch type collapse to see Cork overturn a nine-point deficit — you could call it 9.5 points thanks to Dundalk’s much better goal difference — with just 12 points available.

To do so, Kenny’s side must address a dismal record at Turner’s Cross. Only five of the Dundalk players that are expected to start on Friday night — Sean Gannon, Gary Rogers, Dane Massey, Brian Gartland and Chris Shields — were part of the last Dundalk team to win on Leeside back in April 2015. It feels a long time ago now.

City have won five and drawn two of the seven subsequent meetings on their own patch, including the corresponding game earlier in the season when Gearoid Morrissey settled a forgettable encounter which Kenny described as a throwback to the League of Ireland of the mid-nineties.

Cork’s necessity to win the fixture could see a more open game than we have become accustomed to from the SSE Airtricity League’s heavyweights. Dundalk certainly won’t mind that and given a bit of breathing room, the likes of Michael Duffy could certainly land a knockout blow.

In contrast to the resentful sniping that took place before last season’s FAI Cup final, controversial soundbites have been relatively low-key from both camps in the run up to the occasion.

Sean Gannon has described it as ‘just another game’, refusing to put the fixture on a ‘pedestal’. His most explosive line? “It’s not over until it’s over. If we win down there we’d be in a good position but nothing will be handed over on Friday night.”

Kenny has also tried to keep things serene, refusing to speak about the possibility of his side going nine clear. “We’re just focussing on the game itself,” he told me on Tuesday, still feeling the effects of a chest infection. “We can worry about the aftermath then.”

Caulfield’s comments have provided some colour. The 4–2 defeat to Bohemians last week was greeted by derision from a small batch of fans in the away end at Dalymount Park and the Cork boss sounds like a man who has been trying desperately to spark a response from his withered champions.

“All we can do on Friday is win the match and see where it takes us after that,” he said. “There’s no hiding place. You either respond positively as a stronger person, or you fade away.”

After watching Arsenal dethrone his side in 2002, Ferguson had to swallow his pride, knock on the door of the visitors dressing room and congratulate Wenger and his players. If Dundalk rise to the occasion on Friday night, Caulfield might just have to do the same and the Arsenal 2002, Dundalk 2018 comparisons will be complete.

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