James Clancy sat down recently with Cork City FC manager Neale Fenn at Bishopstown Training Ground on the outskirts of Cork city.
In the first of a two-part feature, Fenn previewed the upcoming 2020 League of Ireland season and discussed ownership structures of football clubs and more.
James Clancy: Thank you for joining me Neale. I remember back in August, you were between Longford Town and Cork City and you were in Eamon Deasy Park watching Cork City lose to Galway United in the FAI Cup. What were your thoughts then on Cork City, did you think: ‘What have I let myself in for?’
Neale Fenn: No, I’d played Galway previously with Longford away and lost and then we played them a few weeks before that and beat them but I know that they’re not bad and I think a lot of people look down their nose at the (League of Ireland) First Division a little bit. Some people call it a ‘graveyard’ which I think is very harsh. Cork City have no right to go to Galway and win, so they have to go there and work for it and they didn’t win the game, they didn’t play well.
Then Shamrock Rovers went up to Galway a couple of weeks later and they struggled to beat them, they got a 90th minute winner, so it’s not easy. So, I was looking at and I thought: ‘They (Cork City) are not playing well, but we should give a bit of credit to Galway.’
Then I took over Cork City the week after and I was just trying to bring back a bit of confidence. A few of the lads had been left out of the squad and left out of the team for whatever reason. Players fall out with managers and fall out of favour. So, it was just trying to give everyone a fresh start then.
JC: So, are you pleased with how the end of 2019 went or was that just all about building for 2020?
NF: I’d have liked for it to have gone better. The club went my first six games without a win. The club had gone so long without a home win and then to finish the last three games of the season unbeaten and to beat Dundalk in the last home game of the season was a nice boost though.
There was positives. I look at it and I think that we missed a penalty at home to Finn Harps (Neale’s fourth match in charge), drew 0-0 and if that penalty had gone in, that would have been three home victories out of five home games. At home to Waterford, we were 1-0 up with 10 minutes to play and I felt that we were playing quite well. We just switched off for 10 minutes (and ended up losing 1-2). The Sligo game, my first game, was always going to be difficult when you’re trying to change a mentality and trying to get the lads a bit of confidence, trying to become a bit more attacking, trying to win the game, trying to try out new players, so that was always going to be a difficult game and Sligo were good on the night.
It wasn’t all negative (from 2019). We took a lot of positives. We went to Dundalk and lost 1-0 and defended well, it showed the other side of it, that the boys could dig in and try to get a result. We had a few players missing for that game, we had a lot of injuries, so, loads of things culminated in the end of the season. Like a lot of teams, by the end of the season, have a few injuries and suspensions, but there were positives to take out of it. Certainly, the home win against Dundalk was a big positive. The first win against UCD, the goals we scored and some of the play was good.
JC: City had gone from the end of April until the third last game of the season against UCD without a home win, that was over five months, so it was good to break that. City were playing Finn Harps in the sixth last game of the season and if Harps had won, they’d have been within three points of Cork City and the relegation playoff place. So, was it a case of: ‘Lads we’re in trouble here’?
NF: I looked at the fixtures then, I looked at the likelihood of us getting victories, I looked at the likelihood of Finn Harps getting victories, considering they’d only won one away game all season before that. The likelihood was that they weren’t going to win those games and that they weren’t going to get enough points. Having said that, if we lost to them, when we played them near the end of the season, it would have been difficult. On the night, I felt that we were far better than them. I felt we were much better than five points better than them and if our penalty had gone in on the night, the win would have been deserved.
JC: The other side of that coin was that City went the last three home games of the season unbeaten, were you thinking: ‘I wish there was another month left of the season or that there was another four or five games left of the season?’
NF: I was enjoying the season. We went to Shamrock Rovers (for the last game of the season) and we were well beaten (3-0) so it showed that we’re not where we wanted to be but I think our oldest player on the pitch was 24 at the time, so, it was a very, very young team.
Some of the boys playing mightn’t be quite ready, you’re wanting to play them, you have to play them, but they might not be ready to play Shamrock Rovers away in the Premier Division.
You only know by playing those players and seeing what they’re like so, we were well beaten that game, so, overall, I was pleased with some of the young players’ performances. Alec Byrne especially was very good against Dundalk and UCD, so, a lot of positives to take out of it and a good stepping stone for next season.
JC: I’m sure you’ve had feedback on this, the style of play is very different to that under John Caulfield. Under Caulfield, it was get from back to front as quickly as possible, whereas with you it’s more about building from the back.
NF: I’m not going to criticize John Caulfield. Everyone has different styles of play. The football I like to play, whether it’s right or wrong, it’s just the way I like to do it. It’s difficult to change it sometimes when the lads are used to doing other things right or wrong it’s just the way of doing stuff. But, that’s everything, set pieces and the pre-match meals. Everything, you’re trying to put your own stamp on it. I tried not to change too much when I first got here and I tried to make it as gradual as possible.
We then went on to discuss ownership structures of clubs.
NF: I think at this level, that fan-owned is the way to go, because obviously everyone is passionate about it and they believe they can make the club sustainable.
JC: That’s an interesting point, you say: ‘At this level.’
NF: Yeah, you couldn’t have a fan-owned club in the Premier League. No, because you need investment and someone will eventually want to be in charge of that.
JC: We’ll say with planning for next season, in terms of signing players and that. Are you finding that it’s a hard sell, there’s been a lot of negative publicity.
NF: I think a player will look first of all, geographically. It’s not Dublin. If you’re trying to sign a player from Dublin, so, geographically you have challenges there. Where you finished in the league last season is going to be a challenge to certain players to try to convince them that you’re not going finish in that position again. Mainly, that is what’s concerned players when I’ve tried to sign them. Do they want to move to Cork? Are they interested in winning trophies and being a part of something that’s on the way up? What I’ve found so far is geography is the biggest issue from the players I’ve tried to sign.
JC: In terms of planning for next season, where will you be looking? I presume you’ll be looking at UCC? Would you look at Longford?
NF: No, I’ve inquired about a couple of players from Longford. We’ve brought in obviously Cian Coleman from St. Pat’s. I’ve looked at the loan market a bit from within Ireland. We’d be looking at the UK as well. I’m going there also.
JC: And the target number of players (for the senior first team squad) is 23?
NF: There’s no target for the number of players, it’s just a matter of getting the players we want and seeing the positions we need to fill. Who do we need to add to the squad? Who will make us better? We’re not going to get players in just to make up the numbers. They need to be decent players and the right character, so, at the moment, we’re not rushing it. We’d like a full squad by the start of pre-season in early January. Whether that’s realistic or not with players holding out come January for other possible deals. We probably won’t have a full squad by the start of pre-season, but definitely for the start of the season.
JC: So for you, on a day-to-day basis now involves a lot of phone calls, would it involve any time on the pitch?
NF: No, not that at this time of the season. We’ve given the players their own programs. Most of them are in the Mardyke and we’re monitoring them. There’s a couple of Dublin based lads who I’m checking on as well.
JC: Speaking of Dublin based, I’ve heard that you’re based in Dublin yourself?
NF: Technically, County Meath. Just on the outskirts of Dublin.
JC: Is that a difficult commute?
NF: No, it’s a straight road the whole way! Obviously when the season is on I’ll live here but when the off season came, I’m kind of up and down.
JC: I believe up until about a year ago, you played in the Leinster Senior League?
NF: That was for about a year and it was mainly to keep fit. I did some coaching around it too.
JC: I’d say you still play an active part in training though?
NF: No, when I play I’m awful. It just slows the training down.
JC: I remember when watching you at Cork City in particular, I thought: ‘This player is very natural.’ So obviously you’re saying that lot of it is hard work and you do lose that ability?
NF: Yeah, a lot of it is natural but you lose the fitness, you lose your suppleness, you lose your awareness, you lose everything really. So, if the ball comes to you, you can pass it, but, these boys are training at a much higher rate than I could train at at this age. So, it’s much quicker and I’d just slow it down.
Keen an eye out for Part 2 of the interview with Neale Fenn which will be live on Back Page Football tomorrow.