John Caulfield Interview Dylan O’Connell
Every time John Caulfield speaks, his voice crackles with a passion for Irish football and as Cork City FC’s record goalscorer and most successful manager, this feeling flows south to the River Lee.
Born in the Bronx in New York, he swapped the concrete jungle for the countryside of Roscommon as a young child. Like many from the west, he began with Gaelic Football before swapping his passions to soccer. This brought him to Athlone Town where he won the League of Ireland B Division playing as a defender.
In 1986 he followed the road to his mother’s home county of Cork. There he became a fan favourite by scoring 197 competitive goals as one of the best strikers to ever wear the green, white, and red jersey.
His career highlights including winning a Junior All Ireland with Cork, starting up front against the then three-time European Cup winners Bayern Munich, and finishing as top goal scorer in the League of Ireland in 1991-92 and 1994-95.
Towards the end of the 1990s and having completed a clean sweep of silverware, the idea of football coaching began to seriously take root inside Caulfield’s head.
John: “I started thinking about going into coaching three or four years before I retired,” Caulfield told Pro-Scout 3.
John: “All through my career, I had a day job. I worked during the day and trained during the week for games on a Sunday. Some people when they think of their retirement, they think of golfing trips and nothing else. That didn’t appeal to me. When I was at the end of my career, I wanted to coach.”
John: “I always dabbled in coaching by working with underage clubs. I did my Kickstart and then my UEFA B License around 1999. After that, I did my A License. I was very anxious to get stuck in.”
John: “I began with the West Cork School Boys team by training them for the Kennedy Cup. I was with them once a week during the winter months. In the spring we trained three times a week. I loved doing that. I loved doing training sessions and developing kids.”
John: “That led on to me finishing with City and joining Avondale United as Head Coach. At the time they were bottom of the Munster Senior League First Division and they asked me to take over because the club was on its knees. I did training sessions with them on Tuesdays and Thursdays and we played on Saturdays or Sundays. From there, everything took off.”
Caulfield resurrected Avondale and turned the club into a force in intermediate football. In his first season, he won the First Division and one year later they were crowned Premier Division winners. These successes were followed up with back to back FAI Intermediate Cup victories in 2006 and 2007, a massive feat for the once graveyard club.
John: “Things were very hands-on at Avondale. I would be down there at 6 pm opening the gates for training. I’d do the session and then lock up the ground. They were all amateur players who were working and playing for the love of the game. Together we developed a successful team.”
John: “It was a great learning experience for me as a coach. I had to learn to adapt to scenarios such as players being away or having to miss sessions overwork. It was a fantastic learning opportunity.”
John: “I’d urge any coach starting out to take up a youth, junior, or senior team. It allows you to learn your mistakes and how to overcome them. You also learn how to break the bad news to players. You learn how to balance a squad by learning how to work with eighteen-year-olds and thirty-eight-year-olds.”
John: “We played 4-4-2 at Avondale. Formations and systems always interested me and why they were picked by managers. When I was doing my coaching badges we were taught all different formations from the managers teaching the course.”
John: “The most interesting manager I have come across is Bruce Arena. He managed the United States for over ten years. He also coached Robbie Keane and David Beckham at LA Galaxy. Everything he said was fascinating. When he was asked about building a system and choosing a formation, he said that he builds his team around a key player. He mentioned Beckham and how he built the team around him in a way that would optimise his ability. He said there is no point in having superstars if you can’t use them to their full potential.”
John: “I experimented more after hearing that. When I arrived at UCC I was really able to experiment.
I experimented with a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3. I really mixed things up there.”
John: Lightning struck twice for Caulfield, who turned the college into one of the strongest teams in Cork football. This began with winning the Munster Senior League First Division in 2011 and was followed up with the college’s first Collingwood Cup victory in six years. While he left the college midsession in 2013 to take up his role at Cork City, Caulfield’s work was the foundations for UCC’s very first Premier Division title in 2014.
John: “The college was a whole different experience. I went from dealing with grown men who had full-time jobs and families to look after working with college students who just wanted to play. Their mentality was so different. They were all free and easy. As a result, managing was such a different experience.”
John: “The players had to deal with opponents trying to intimidate and bully them when they played in the league. Every week we were in the trenches and I was there getting them to step up and fight back. It was brilliant learning for me to deal with a young college team.”
John: “I was asked to take over the City manager by then-owner Tom Coughlan. I declined and focused on UCC. When the offer came up again in the winter of 2013, I immediately accepted. I had grown as a manager and had the confidence to step into the League of Ireland.”
Caulfield went to Cork City in December 2013. In just one season he transformed the sleeping mid-table club into title challengers. Despite finishing in second after nail-biting title decider against Dundalk on the final game of the season, he had qualified the club for Europe and brought the buzz back to Turners Cross.
John: “When I did the interview for Cork City, I was up against two managers who had experience working in the Premier League. I knew I was up against it for the job however in the interview I said that I could turn the club around, get the team fighting, and turn the Cross into a fortress.”
John: “When I was offered the job, I gave up my day job and went to Cork City. I was on less money but I didn’t care. If I turned it down I would have regretted it. Cork City is my club. I played for the club and supported them. This was something I had to do.”
John: “Tommy Dunne had done well by getting the club up and keeping them in the division. But, we were mid-table and teams were regularly beating us at home. I wanted to change this. I wanted the team to show real passion and give everything on the pitch.”
John: “I was told the club had no money and they were in debt. To be honest, I didn’t care about all of that. I wanted to get a team together who would run through a wall, be aggressive and would always fight. I knew if we did that people would come out and support the club which would increase revenue and clear off the debts.”
John: “There were just six players signed by the club when I went in. All of them were on small contracts. I enticed Dan Murray and Colin Healy to come back. I signed Mark O’Sullivan from Avondale United. I signed Rob Lehane and Michael McSweeney from UCC. We promoted John Kavanagh from the underage team. We slowly built the squad. We only signed Billy Dennehy.”
John: “At the start, we played a 4-4-2. I quickly learned that St. Pats and Dundalk were dominating games because they controlled the midfield in games. To compete with them I had to adapt. I stayed with the 4-4-2 for lesser games but tightened up against the bigger teams.”
John: “From my first day driving into Bishoptown to my very last day at Cork City, it was like a Formula 1 race. There was no rest or relaxation. I was constantly on the go. I had a fantastic background team around me for support. We had to set the standard because we didn’t have the finances other clubs would have had.”
John: “The hardest thing for me at City was telling club legends, who I would have idolised, that their time was up. I travelled the country watching the 2005 title-winning team. I saw them win the FAI Cup in Dublin in 2007. I watched them from the stands and idolised them for what they were doing. Then I had to tell them I was sorry that I was making changes to the squad and they would not be part of my plans for the new season. That was the hardest thing I had to do as a manager. I had the utmost respect for those guys but I had to do it.”
In 2015 Caulfield got his first taste of European football at Cork City when they played KR in the UEFA Europa League first qualifying round. While City lost 3-2 on aggregate, it was a massive learning experience for Caulfield and his team.
John: “Europe is different from the norm. You know the League of Ireland and you know the league well. That changes in Europe. The Iceland trip was such a learning experience. The two games taught me so much on how to handle a European game. It helped me greatly for 2016.”
John: “In 2016 we had a different team. We brought in Seani Maguire, Greg Bolger, Stephen Dooley, and Kenny Browne. Steven Beattie and Kevin O’Connor had matured after being signed in 2015. It was a younger and quicker team which had a lot more flare. With that we’re able to play at a higher intensity. This allowed us to compete both in Europe and in the league. These were changes we had to make to in order to compete with Dundalk.”
John: “That run we went on in 2016 to the third round of the Europa League was incredible. Just look at the first game we played against Linfield. We played them off the park in Belfast. We only won 1-0 because Roy Carroll made some unbelievable saves. The next game against Hacken was a real statement from us. We were playing a club who had a €25m budget and were in league levels above our own. We competed with them and beat them on aggregate. Beating them at home was so satisfying. In the next round, we played so well against Genk and were unlucky. We played very well in the first leg against them. They got early goals in the second leg which killed the game. Despite this, we showed in Europe what a high level we had got to.”
John: “When you play in Europe you have to play to the best of your ability. If you are playing a team from Sweden, Belgium, or Norway, you have to play at your very best. Those teams play at a high-level week in week out in a professional league and you have to match that. Also, if you are to have any chance of progressing an away goal is vital.”
John: “Playing in Europe is about being on the ball and being able to use it. Our team in 2016 and 2017 could play ball, be fast, and press teams high. That is what we did and we had fantastic results in Europe in those years.”
In 2017 Caulfield managed Cork City to four out of the five domestic trophies available to them. Among these honours were the league title and FAI Cup, a feat not done by a Cork club since 1951. This triumphant season was also highlighted by the rise of striker Seani Maguire, who scored twenty goals in twenty-one games before moving to Preston North End midseason.
John: “After winning the double in 2017 we had to rebuild the team,” Caulfield opened up on what happened next, “Stephen Dooley had signed for Coleraine. Ryan Delaney had returned to his parent club in England. Greg Bolger went to Rovers. In total, we had lost five players from the double-winning team. That meant we had to rebuild a new team for 2018. That was a strong team but not as good as the double-winning team.”
John: “We had a plan in 2016 and 2017 that was built around Seani Maguire with Sheppard and Stephen Dooley which was very successful, but we had to completely change that for 2018. That year we had to change our whole game plan to adapt to Graham Cummins upfront. Graham is a fantastic player who is brilliant in the air but, his strength wasn’t breaking the ball down and coming in behind defenders like Seani was. So we had to adapt our game plan to suit his strengths. We were playing a different game that season which was a lot more direct.”
John: “Playing in the Champions League is more for supporters. To me, it was all just Europe. Whenever you are playing in the Europa League or the Champions League it is still a game in Europe. The name of the competition doesn’t matter. The supporters love the branding of it. To me, it is just a European game.”
John: “Legia Warsaw was a really difficult draw in 2018 as they were one of the top seeds in the qualifying round. Despite that, the home leg in Turners Cross was very tight and Legia scored a goal from nothing from thirty-five yards out. We played really well that day and had an abundance of chances.”
John: “Going to Poland 1-0 down is a different game. They know that they can sit back because you will be chasing the game. They know that if they get one goal the game it is over. It is a different approach in those kinds of games as you have to leave yourself a little bit open.”