By Aidan Fitzmaurice
When the city of Cork was named European Capital of Culture for 2005, locals imagined it would be the fields of dance, drama and music that would put Ireland's second city - called the 'Real Capital' by natives - on the map.
Instead, the football field has been the stage for Cork glory this year. Past the midway point of the Irish season, Cork City FC are top of the Premier Division, four points clear of second-placed Derry City FC and unbeaten in 14 games.
As they target a first league title since 1993, and a first trophy since the 1998 FAI Cup, Cork are also taking on Djurgårdens IF in the UEFA Cup second qualifying round having overcome Lithuania's FK Ekranas in the first.
The best-supported club in Ireland with average gates of around 4,000, Cork's expectations have been raised by successive third and second-placed finishes in the league and a fine UEFA Intertoto Cup run last term which took them to the third round.
Appointed manager just days before the start of the new season, following the shock sacking of Pat Dolan, Damien Richardson came to the job knowing anything less than the championship would be seen as failure.
"Finishing second was very good, but Cork City should really be finishing first on a much more regular basis," said Richardson, who also managed the club from 1993-95. "[Champions] Shelbourne [FC] are setting a standard that everyone wants to match. I don't want to match that standard, I want to go past it."
The players have welcomed Richardson's passion. "Damien is very thorough, he's a real football man and he knows his stuff," said goalkeeper Michael Devine. "Damien believes in the players, he wants to win things and that's why he came to Cork."
It is to Richardson's credit that City have maintained their push for league and UEFA Cup honours despite some serious problems. Top scorer Kevin Doyle's €120,000 departure for English club Reading FC has not dented their goalscoring ability, while they overcame a goalkeeping injury crisis in the first leg against Ekranas by temporarily bringing 41-year-old goalkeeping coach Phil Harrington out of retirement. Devine is sure to be fit to face Djurgården after recovering from injury.
It is a tightknit squad: most of them, like keeper Devine, star midfielder George O'Callaghan, winger Liam Kearney and exciting forward John O'Flynn, are from Cork and many of the outsiders have local roots. City have three players who were born in England, played for the Republic of Ireland at youth level through the parentage rule and have now moved to Ireland to play with Cork, like Londoners Danny Murphy and Neale Fenn.
"I played for Ireland because my mother was from Cork, now here I am playing for Cork City.
My daughter was born in Cork last month so it's been amazing," said Fenn. "I have had a decent career so far, I played in the Premiership for Tottenham Hotspur [FC], I played for Ireland's Under-20 team when we finished third at the [FIFA] World Youth Championship finals in 1997, but to win a league medal with Cork City and have a good UEFA Cup run would top it all."
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