Bob Bradley isn't the only American coaching a top-flight soccer club in Europe. Here is the story of Bronx-born John Caulfield, 49, who is looking to return Cork City FC to its glory days.
JUST A FEW SHORT YEARS AGO
August 01, 2014
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, Cork City FC was a club on the brink of collapse. With the Irish economy struggling, many Premier Division clubs in the League of Ireland were facing financial ruin and an uncertain future. Cork City was hit especially hard.
Five years ago, Cork City’s holding company was dissolved through bankruptcy and the proceedings carried over onto to the field. The club suffered through a series of disappointing league finishes and in 2010 it was relegated to the Irish second division after it couldn't afford to pay for a Premier Division license. It returned to the top flight a year later but the mood around the team was depressed and the fans and the city lacked hope. Despite scrapping back into the top flight, Cork City had fallen far behind teams like Shamrock Rovers, St. Patrick’s, and Sligo Rovers. It was a low point for a team with a proud soccer tradition.
Enter John Caulfield.
Born in an Irish immigrant section of the Bronx in 1964, Caulfield returned to Ireland with his parents in 1968. He has a long and storied history with the club and the latest chapter has seen him preside over a remarkable turnaround for Cork City.
Following a disappointing 2013 season, the club made a management change and Caulfield, 49, was named head coach. The hiring was significant given Caulfield’s deep ties with the community and the club. From 1986 through 2001 Caulfield was a legendary forward for Cork City FC, where he became the club’s all-time leading scorer and was elected to the official supporter’s club Hall of Fame in 2008.
What has happened has been surprising—even for the club’s most optimistic supporters. With most pundits predicting another mid-table or worse finish for Cork City, the club presently sits in second place in the Premier Division and is only three points behind leaders Dundalk. Enthusiasm is widespread and fans are dreaming about titles and the promise of European soccer.
As difficult as it was for supporters to watch the demise of Cork City over the past few years, it hit Caulfield especially hard. After retiring as a player, he remained in the Cork area, coaching local university (most recently UCC or University College Cork) and amateur teams. But his ties to the club remained strong.
“When you have such a close affinity for the club and the past few seasons we’ve been finishing mid-table, obviously I felt I could change things,” Caulfield told American Soccer Now. “That’s why I applied to the club to do the job. I felt that I could turn it around. There’s a lot of work to be done and there’s a lot of work done already. Certainly we’ve progressed hugely this season.”
Following the bankruptcy proceedings, Cork City FC was saved when the Supporters Club trust fund, FORAS, took over management and ownership of the club. The supporters, who are known as the Red Army, have helped stabilize the organization after years of poor management. Pat Lyons is presently the club’s chairman and was the person responsible for hiring Caulfield. He recalls that during the process, Caulfield simply impressed the most out of all the candidates. It wasn’t just his status as a former player but it was his vision that won him the job.
“At the end of last season we went into a tailspin and our crowd attendance suffered,” Lyons said. “We even had people boycotting. The board made a decision to part ways with the managers. We then had 51 applicants for the job, even names from the U.K. But John came in for the interview and was the most impressive person. He had a plan. The others were quite willing to talk about themselves but John’s take on it was different. He said what he was going to do for Cork City. That impressed me and thankfully we appointed him.”
The club’s attendance at its stadium, Turners Cross, has seen a sharp increase since Caulfield’s hiring. In the 2013 season, the average attendance was 1,960 (compared with the 2013 Premier Division average of 1,774) and not once did the team draw more than 3,000 for a game. Through 10 home games in 2014, the average crowd size is 3,704—an increase of 89%.
So what has Caulfield done to improve the situation at Cork City, both on the field as well at the Turner Cross gate? The fact that he is a popular and historical figure at Cork City only tells part of the story. The driving factor is Caulfield’s knowledge of the city, the surrounding football infrastructure, and the people in the community.
Team captain John Dunleavy is now in his third season with the club. He joined shortly after Cork City returned to the Premier Division following bankruptcy and noticed that the intensity of the club changed after Caulfield came on board.
“From the very moment he walked in, he’s been incredibly driven and incredibly passionate about Cork City,” Dunleavy said. “It’s in his blood. He loves the club and loves everything about it. It rubbed off on everybody and we bought into his ideas very quickly. Not only has he galvanized us as a team, but in being a club legend, he’s galvanized the city as well. He’s bringing fans out that wouldn’t have come out in recent years. He has us playing an attractive brand of football.”
Cork is the second-biggest city in Ireland, and unlike Dublin, which has multiple teams, Cork has just one—and no other club even remotely close to it. As a result, the club has a tremendous number of supporters in addition to a large recruiting base from which it can draw prospective players. Caulfield has tapped into that talent pool during his first season, signing talented athletes from the area—many of whom may have otherwise been overlooked.
“Most of the players are from the city or the county," Caulfield explained, adding that the local flavor adds to the club's appeal. "I brought back that sort of pride in the team. I certainly always had a lot of passion for the club and I suppose people would see me as person that would have been a huge player for the club and a big supporter of the club once I finished playing. I think coming in as manager, people would realize that the club would always be very close to me and that I have a lot of strong feelings for the club.
“I felt we had a lot of mangers from outside Cork—they lost probably a little identity.”
Neal Horgan, 34, first signed on with Cork City in 1999 and has become one of the team's most popular players. Six years ago he retired from playing to become a lawyer, but in 2010 he came out of retirement to help the club when it was struggling with bankruptcy and the players were relegated to part-time status.
Horgan, who was born in California but raised in Cork, is still with the club but rarely plays as he is still primarily focused on his legal career. Still, he knows the club as well as anyone and was part of its last championship in 2005. Next month he is set to release his book “Death of a Football Club?” which will chronicle the turmoil that surrounded Cork City during the 2008 financial crisis.
As someone who knew Caulfield as both a player and now as a coach, Horgan is adamant that the club’s best days are ahead.
“It’s very exciting,” Horgan explained. “I’ve played with Cork City for most of the past 10-14 years and when he came back, he was just talking about things that make you realize he’s wanted to do this for quite some time. It made my back shiver. I knew that they got the right guy. Everything he has done since has confirmed that.”
“John knows the advantages of Cork City,” he added. “We have a large area around here that we have sole control over. John feeds into that with the players and with the media. He’s like, ‘Dublin don’t care about us.’ That psychology works well for the club. It always has. John’s knowledge of local football is showing already.”
THE GENERAL PERCEPTION
is that Cork City are on the right path and Caulfield has a vision for the team, but the problem that has plagued Irish soccer is that success at the club level is very modest compared with other European countries—even small ones.
When Caulfield was a player for Cork City, teams in the Premier Division were not yet at full-time professional level. Just after the turn of the century, the Premier Division began to covert to full-time professional status. The quality of the league improved and its UEFA coefficient did too. In 2001 the Irish league ranked 41st in Europe; in 2010 it was 29th best.
The improvements came at a huge cost, however, as expenses mounted and then the Irish economy staggered. Cork City fought through bankruptcy and many other teams in the league suffered too. As a result, the quality of play suffered: The league now ranks 36th in UEFA.
Undaunted, Caulfield has a vision for the future: He believes that Irish teams need to continue to perform well in the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions League or the Europa League and use the money generated to improve youth development and infrastructure. In 2011, the Shamrock Rovers became the first Irish club to advance to the Europa League group stages—which generated an impressive source of revenue by Irish standards.
Even modest triumphs such as Sligo Rovers’ first round win in Europa League qualifying earlier this month brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars which, according to Caulfield, is “Mickey Mouse” money for English teams but for Irish teams with a budget around $1 million, it is huge.
In addition to finances, Irish soccer has historically been plagued by problems that are strikingly similar to the problems that hindered the development of American soccer. In Ireland, the sporting landscape is crowded: Gaelic Football and hurling attract most of the public attention, and rugby is also hugely popular. When it comes to supporting soccer, many Irish people would rather watch English Premier League games on TV than attend games in their own domestic league.
Soccer is still the most widely played sport in Ireland but as Caulfield puts it, “99 percent of it is amateur." With the country so small and other sports dominating, there is little room to support professional clubs. Horgan, however, believes that problems facing professional clubs stem from a lack of organization due to the federation’s focus on the national team instead of the domestic leagues.
Either way, both Horgan and Caulfield agree that success in European competitions is the best way to grow the league and the clubs. In 1991, Caulfield was part of a Cork team that played Bayern Munich in a UEFA Cup series. Bayern won the series, 3-1, but Cork tied the German powerhouse at home in the first leg, 1-1, and that game still stands as the club’s most famous and important game.
“That Bayern Munich was very important to establishing the identity of the club,” Horgan pointed out. “John is kind of bringing that identity back to the forefront again. I think it will serve to keep Cork at the top of the league.”
FOR CORK CITY
, qualifying for the Europa League next year would be an important milestone both financially and as a signal to the supporters that the club’s best days are ahead. Club chairman Pat Lyons realizes that the money earned from European play will provide means to fund the development of young Irish players—which has historically been a problem in Ireland as most top young players have left for English academies at very young ages and therefore frequently have little or no involvement with Irish clubs.
“One of the reasons why the players and everybody else at the club have bought into that is because of John’s drive commitment and belief in the fact that we can produce a successful Cork team and people who want to play for Europe,” Lyons said. “Getting into Europe would be massive for us. It would be a big payday and help us pay some of the debt that we have from last year and the years before. It would give us an opportunity to fund our infrastructure and go from there.”
Dunleavy agrees with his chairman that the players have bought into the importance that European competition brings to the club’s future but insists that the team has always been confident in what it could achieve this year.
“Going into this year, we were looking for a massive improvement under John and some people were saying we could finish top four,” Dunleavy said. “But in the dressing room we were quietly confident that we’d be able to spring a few surprises. The main goal has always been Europe.”
Winning the Premier Division or even qualifying for the Europa League via a second- or third-place finish would also be a noteworthy achievement for Caulfield because it would make him the first American-born coach in Europe to ever qualify for a European competition. Earlier this year, Bob Bradley became the first American to coach a top-flight team in Europe when he was hired to run the Norwegian club Stabaek. Caulfield was hired a few weeks later.
Caulfield was born in New York City but raised in Ireland since the age of four. Still, he has maintained American connections. His brother currently works as a cross-country coach at California University of Pennsylvania and his parents moved back to the States and lived for a long time in Florida. Caulfield recalls going to Tampa Bay Mutiny games in the early days of MLS to watch Carlos Valderrama when visiting his family.
When speaking to Caulfield, it is easy to forget that he was born in the United States. His Cork accent is thick and his knowledge of the Irish province of Munster is unparalleled. Still, he does offer hints of his affinity of for the country of his birth. He keenly followed the U.S. national team at the World Cup and has great hope that sport of soccer continues to progress in the United States. He follows MLS around the playoffs and is particularly happy to see Robbie Keane’s success with Los Angeles.
Caulfield is also actively seeking to bring in American players to Cork City. He had two Americans on trial with the club earlier in the season and while they were unsuccessful in earning contracts, Caulfield hopes that the opportunity to play in Europe makes Cork City an attractive option for other Yanks.
“I like the American lads over here because their attitude is brilliant,” Caulfield said. “I’m trying to say to them that we’re a very good stepping stone because English clubs are watching our players.”
For now, Caulfield and Cork City are simply focused on the pursuit of the League of Ireland title and earning a spot in the UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds next year. After all that the club has been through in recent years, it would complete a remarkable turnaround.
“It was always my ambition to be a full-time professional manager,” Caulfield said. “It’s been fantastic with full-time training with a lot of young players. They have huge ambitions like everyone else to try to get to England because they can get better players and have more money. That’s what a lot of my younger players are trying to do. But for me, coaching here has been fantastic.”
“It’s tough and the perception is that we’re still not as strong as the three clubs that are around us right now,” he added. “But we’re still there. If we can keep our feet on the ground and delivering the performances every week, I think we can win it.”
Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.