Divorce is toughest on the children. Or at least that’s what people say. But children, like football fans, will often try to look on the bright side of unfortunate breakups: “Well, at least I’ll get two birthday presents now…”
Cork City fans have had to endure a messy divorce of their own over the past few weeks, as Kenny Browne and John Caulfield went their very public but very separate ways. Browne’s sudden departure on the eve of the season was ill-timed and poorly handled by all sides involved. He leaves behind a significant gap in the City defence and also leaves City fans struggling to find the bright side of this particular relationship coming to an end. But before we look with child-like optimism towards the future, we must examine what Cork City have lost with Kenny Browne’s departure.
The Waterford man is the archetypal old-school League of Ireland centre back. A towering presence at the back, Browne is commanding in the air and thunderous in the tackle. Cork City boasted the league’s most miserly defence last season as the Rebel Army shipped just 23 league goals in 33 games. Kenny Browne played a significant part in this success and was quite rightly rewarded for his performances with a place on the PFAI Premier Division Team of the Year. So, in order to find any rays of optimism which shine through the storm clouds of his departure, we must look beyond the statistics and examine how City and Browne achieved such success.
— Waterford FC (@WaterfordFCie) February 22, 2017
Club legend Alan Bennett stood alongside Kenny Browne for most of last season. During his first spell with City, Bennett formed one half of (in this writer’s humble opinion) the finest centre back pairing ever to grace the league. Bennett and Dan Murray were a match made in football heaven. Though they had height and physical strength in common, it was their differences which made their partnership so effective. Murray was a ball-playing centre back who loved to spray passes around the pitch. He also enjoyed the more-than-occasional sortie into midfield with the ball at his feet, frequently abandoning his centre back post to initiate attacks with a driving run into midfield. The younger Bennett proved the perfect foil as his sheer athleticism allowed him to cover ground with gazelle-like ease. Whenever Dan Murray went on a rampaging run, he did so secure in the knowledge that Benno had him covered.
But at 35, Bennett is a different player. Time has robbed him of his raw athleticism but compensated him with experience and the ability to read the game instead. His positional sense and ability to organise the defence are second to none. Bennett 2.0 is a different beast but effective nonetheless. Together, Browne and Bennett formed the two towers of City’s near-impregnable defensive wall last season. They were, in every respect, immovable objects. Aerial assaults were repelled with ease and balls played into the feet of a striker were read and intercepted. However, pace remained the Achilles heel of this power couple. It was a weakness both Browne and Bennett were acutely aware of and one which influenced their positioning. City’s defensive fortifications were constructed deep, leaving little or no space behind the centre back pairing.
The evidence in the “goals against” column demonstrates the effectiveness of this approach. However, it also had its drawbacks. Going forward, John Caulfield’s men have largely relied on Greg Bolger and their dynamic fullbacks to kick-start attacks. On more than one occasion last season, opposition teams arrived at The Cross set up to nullify this. When Bolger and the City fullbacks are pressed and closed down, possession invariably trickled backward to Bennett or Browne. City’s centre backs were often afforded oceans of space as opposing teams prioritised closing off Bolger, Kevin O’Connor and the rotating cast at right back. Lacking the passing ability of Dan Murray, attempts to thread high-risk low balls into the feet of attacking players like Sean Maguire and Stephen Dooley resulted in possession being lost in dangerous situations. And, wary of their lack of pace, neither Browne nor Bennett were willing to burst forth from the back with ball at their feet. As a result, the City centre back pairing was faced with two options; launch it at Maguire’s head or launch it over the top.
In this respect, City’s greatest strength – their immovable, impenetrable defence – was also their greatest weakness as the team failed to create chances in some crucial games. The frequency with which Caulfield’s team resorted to long balls aimed at the diminutive Maguire was a regular source of criticism from Turner’s Cross faithful and the ability to play their way out from the back was perhaps the single biggest factor which has elevated Dundalk above the Rebel Army in recent seasons. This brings us to the optimistic side of Browne’s departure.
— Cork City FC (@CorkCityFC) January 26, 2017
If Caulfield decides to take inspiration from the past, perhaps the future for a Kenny Browne-less Cork City may be even brighter. They say that necessity is the mother of invention and that is most certainly true in the high-pressure environment of football management. Had Browne stayed at City, it’s fair to suspect that John Caulfield may have adopted an “if it ain’t broke, don’t’ fix it” attitude to his centre-back pairing. Browne and Bennett may have continued to form the rocks upon which attacks (both opposing team’s and, on occasion, Cork City’s) foundered. However, Browne’s sudden departure has forced Caulfield to reassess.
When Dundalk turned up at Turner’s Cross for the President’s Cup over a fortnight ago, there was widespread surprise to see the composition of the Cork City defence. It was not the absence of Kenny Browne, but rather the identity of his chosen replacement which prompted shock. Conor McCormack, a midfielder/right back recently acquired from Derry City was paired at the heart of defence alongside on-loan Burton Albion defender Ryan Delaney. Despite what online sources may suggest (Delaney is erronneously listed at 5’ 11” while McCormack apparently stands at 5’ 10”), it very much had the look of a little-and-large centre back pairing.
The selection was greeted with bemusement and anxiety before kick-off but as it turned out, both players performed superbly. McCormack in particular excelled, cleaning up ball on the deck and driving out of defence with the ball at his feet. Capable of playing in midfield, he has an eye for a pass and the ability to play it in to the feet of City’s danger-men. Alongside him Delaney looked composed and, crucially, he possesses both the athleticism to cover for McCormack’s forays out of defence and the aerial prowess to deal with set pieces.
“One athletic centre back paired with a ball-playing centre back who can play the ball out from defence? Whisper it, but there were echoes of a Murray-Bennett style pairing.”
Cork City’s recent record against Dundalk has been nothing short of phenomenal. The Rebel Army have emerged victorious in four of the last five meetings with the Lilywhites. But the 3-0 victory in the President’s Cup was arguably the first time Caulfield’s team have comprehensively outplayed Dundalk. Just how committed, focused or fired up Dundalk were remains uncertain. But what is certain is the positive impact the selection of the McCormack and Delaney pairing had on City’s play from the back. One athletic centre back paired with a ball-playing (albeit makeshift) centre back who can play the ball out from defence? Whisper it, but there were echoes of a Murray-Bennett style pairing.
However, against Finn Harps in Ballybofey a week later, it was returning captain John Dunleavy who was deployed alongside Delaney. Like McCormack, Dunleavy is not a traditional centre back and is comfortable with the ball at his feet. Unfortunately, conditions at Finn Park on the night severelyrestricted the tactics of both sides. Last Friday night, when Galway United came to town, Caulfield had another change in store as he reverted to a more “traditional” pairing of Bennett and Delaney. However, once again the weather conditions undoubtedly influenced both tactics and selection as the game remained in some doubt until a final pitch inspection on Friday afternoon.
The season remains in its infancy and it is clear that John Caulfield is still searching for his best defensive pairing. Browne’s departure appears to have left Cork City shorthanded in the centre back department, with just Bennett and Delaney as established, orthodox centre backs. Lithuanian signing Rimvydas Sadauskas remains an unknown quantity, while u19 standout Conor McCarthy is just 18-years-old. McCormack, Dunleavy and the recently acquired Shane Griffin make up the remaining possible central options at Caulfield’s disposal and those final three players fall under the category of “comfortable with the ball at their feet”.
After three games and three different centre back pairings, there remains plenty of uncertainty. Will Caulfield stick with the traditional “two big lads” at the back, favouring defensive solidity over the more incisive play City displayed with McCormack? Or will the success of the little-and- large pairing in the President’s Cup, prompt Caulfield to paraphrase Back to the Future’s Doc Browne and decide “Two centre backs? Where we’re going, we don’t need two centre backs…”