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Dundalk's David McMillan clashes with Mark McNulty. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Dundalk's David McMillan clashes with Mark McNulty. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
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The high moral ground has no place in the League of Ireland, honesty and raw passion make it special

DID it make it sweeter that Cork City lifted the cup in the wake of Mark McNulty’s little ditty about Dundalk?

Of course it did, tastier than the first sup of a pint of Murphy’s at the end of Lent. More exciting the best episode of Game of Thrones. That’s what sporting rivalry does to you.

For the Dundalk supporters McNulty played the role of villain with aplomb. With his beard, he actually bears a resemblance to Aiden Gillen’s character on the show, but where Littlefinger is a cunning operator, McNulty had no problem being centre-stage at the Aviva and in the week before.

Mark McNulty and Achille Campion celebrate. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Mark McNulty and Achille Campion celebrate. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

That Dundalk made such a fuss about an online clip of the veteran keeper joining in with an inflammatory song about them but were then beaten by him ensured last Sunday enters Leeside sports lore. Nults' vital save in the penalty shoot-out, right in front of the Dundalk faithful who had given him pelters – literally – and fulfilled his role as their nemesis and our hero.

He wasn’t repentant in the wake of City’s victory over Dundalk, just slightly contrite. Yet we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Mark McNulty of Cork City celebrates saving a penalty. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Mark McNulty of Cork City celebrates saving a penalty. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"I didn’t mean to offend any Dundalk players, or former players and obviously not Stephen Kenny,” he explained. “When the pressure is on him he bites. He felt the pressure because he bit straight away.

"Getting the grief from Dundalk fans, same as I always get from them, I loved it. I turned around at the end when we won, and I gave them a smile. That’s football.” 

Too right.

Don’t get us wrong, bridging a gap to the last Cork soccer double in 1951, was incredible in itself. It turned an understandably wonderful season for John Caulfield’s side – who did wobble a bit on the way to the league crown when they lost a few key players – into a historic one.

City played with more swagger and ruthlessness when Seanie Maguire was on fire but even after he departed they still managed to become only the third Rebel unit to pull off a soccer double. The others were way back in the ‘40s and ‘50s under the Cork United and Cork Athletic banners.

For all the talk of City stumbling over the line, they still finished the season seven points ahead of Dundalk. Yesterday the PFAI Team of the Year announced contained four Dundalk players, Sean Gannon, Niclas Vemmelund, Patrick McEleney and David McMillan, to three from City, Ryan Delaney, Gearóid Morrissey and Maguire.

Seanie Maguire and Kevin O'Connor at the cup final. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Seanie Maguire and Kevin O'Connor at the cup final. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The selection fits in with the view that Dundalk have more style even if City can more than match them for substance. Including the President’s Cup final in preseason, the Louth side couldn’t manage a single win in the five meetings between the best of enemies. In the 2016 season it was only one from five, albeit the sole victory secured them the title.

As much as retaining the cup franked City’s status as the best team in the country, losing it would have tainted the league to a slight degree. The stakes were high which is exactly why the McNulty saga was the talk of the build-up to the FAI Cup showdown.

Dundalk made a major deal of it to add fuel to their fire and heap the pressure on City.

Karl Sheppard takes on Brian Gartland, Stephen O'Donnell and Patrick McEleney. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Karl Sheppard takes on Brian Gartland, Stephen O'Donnell and Patrick McEleney. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

That was manager Stephen Kenny and his players’ right of course. All teams look for an edge going into games. While Kilkenny were sweeping all before them for the best part of a decade Brian Cody and his troops hurled with the fury of a group that truly believed no one respected them.

What was annoying on this occasion was the way Kenny took the moral high-ground and decided to turn McNulty’s playful antics into a grave insult to the club’s history and past greats. Clearly the Ballincollig man was having a laugh with the fans at Soho Bar in the wake of their league success.

You’d imagine another McNulty, Tom – the goalscorer at the Cross when Dundalk snatched the league crown from City’s grasp back in 1991 – and his team-mates knocked mighty craic out of the result at Cork’s expense 26 years ago but there were no mobile phones to record those celebrations. The bite and honesty in the League of Ireland is one of its most appealing traits.

That rawness – the genuine connection with supporters, cutting post-match interviews and raucous celebrations – is a wonderful antidote to the sanitised Premier League across the water. As they say on Twitter #GreatestLeagueInTheWorld.

Even in recent days there has been sniping back and forth between Caulfield and Kenny over the Karl Sheppard situation after the versatile attacker opted to stay at the Cross having made a commitment before the campaign was over to head to Oriel Park. Off-season eh? It’s safe to say City and Dundalk bring both the best and worst out of each other.

The last time City were league champions, Shels were the team to beat and there was no quarter given, on the field or through soundbites. There’s no love lost between City and Shamrock Rovers.

Intense rivalries make sport and especially the League of Ireland. It can never compete with the crowds that attend GAA, the money behind rugby, or the prestige of the Olympics and so on.

Cork City supporters never hold back. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cork City supporters never hold back. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

It needs to be more appealing to the casual sports fans perhaps, but a bouncing Turner’s Cross, with flares lighting, flags flying, and the chants at the filthiest and funniest, is hard to beat.

And to keep it that way we don’t want McNulty or anyone else to dial it down even a notch.