Crocked Clifford opens the door for Cork City

Alan O’Brien 

The injury list continues to grow for Limerick FC. On Monday night, Conor Clifford became its latest addition. And the midfielder’s half-time departure here proved decisive in Cork City’s favour.

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Clifford’s presence, at the base of Tommy Barrett’s midfield, proved vital for Limerick throughout the first-half. The 26-year-old screened his defence brilliantly, conjuring countless crucial blocks and interceptions to deny the Cork attack.

Clifford’s range of passing, evident too throughout Friday’s victory in Waterford, also posed the Leesiders a problem. The midfielder’s accurate diagonals made brisk defensive transitions — a forte of John Caulfield — all the more important.

Blunt

Clifford and co. more often than not targeted Will Fitzgerald with the first ball out of defence. And the 18-year-old winger more than justified this attention. Fitzgerald proved Limerick’s only effective attacking player, outmuscling Barry McNamee to tee up Shane Duggan’s early chance.

That passage of play, which played out in the second minute, suggested Conor McCormack’s absence may spell trouble for Cork. But the Leesiders otherwise coped well without their only natural number-six; thanks both to some surprisingly impressive defensive work from McNamee, and Limerick’s depressingly blunt attack.

Daniel Kearns, still returning to full fitness, wasted the pocket of space fashioned by Jimmy Keohane’s box-to-box tendencies. And Mark O’Sullivan, in the for the hamstrung Danny Morrissey, was physically dominated by both Sean McLoughlin and Conor McCarthy — particularly the latter.

In truth, McCarthy — only 20 — was imperious here, and Alan Bennett will find it difficult to break back in to this side. Both McCarthy and his partner McLoughlin, 21, are much better on the ball than their veteran mentor, too. As evidenced by McCarthy’s mouthwatering secondary assist for Buckley’s opener, arced over the confused heads of Shaun Kelly and Kilian Cantwell.

Terrorised

That delectable diagonal found Kieran Sadlier at the byline. And the 23-year-old, who changed the reverse fixture from the bench a fortnight ago, terrorised Limerick again here. The manner in which he pirouetted past Kelly to tee up Buckley’s stonewall 70th-minute penalty shout sticks out a mile, in that regard.

With both Colm Horgan and a toiling Steven Beattie wasting countless crossing opportunities on the right, Sadlier stood as Caulfield’s only real chance-creator. All the more impressive given the non-option Shane Griffin’s well-tracked overlaps represented. Cork kitman Mick Ring may need to check the left-back’s pockets for Will Fitzgerald before washing the gear today.

Despite the best efforts of Graham Cummins, who manfully ran the channels and bullied both Cantwell and Tony Whitehead, all looked lost for Cork in an attacking sense. Until, that is, Clifford was forced to come ashore at half-time. Added to Morrissey, and late pull-out Barry Maguire, that makes three fresh hamstring injuries for Limerick in four days.

Space

Suddenly, Buckley had space in which to operate. Teenager Karl O’Sullivan replaced Clifford, slotting into a number-10 position. This prompted Limerick’s reorganisation into a 4-2-3-1, with neither of its two holders — Duggan and Coleman — particularly renowned for tracking runners.

So it proved, as Buckley ran free into the Limerick defensive third to pocket a second-half double. Sadlier, provider for the first, also produced the loose ball for the second — courtesy of a Cantwell foul. Referee Sean Grant played a good advantage; a rare good call from a night of typically baffling officiating.

Credit, too, to substitute Josh O’Hanlon, who outmuscled Cantwell to start the move; picking up where Cummins left off. The contrast between Cummins’ all-round performance and that of Mark O’Sullivan could not have been more stark. Morrissey’s absence was sorely felt.

And here is where Barrett’s post-match comments about the 2018 fixture schedule really deserve to be heard. Sure, to an certain extent, the Limerick manager has been the architect of his own downfall; signing a raft of players with chequered injury histories and questionable conditioning.

Conclusion

But Barrett’s hands were tied by his late appointment. And his constraints have been further tightened by this midweek madness. Assisting the Europe-bound clubs, by cramming two-thirds of the season into the pre-break period, makes sense to a degree. But surely struggling Sligo Rovers, who Limerick visit on Friday, should have also been forced to play on Monday, too?

Fairness doesn’t come into it, apparently, as players struggling for fitness –with no chance to get up to speed — know all too well. Even the likes of Cork’s Bennett, who reaggravated a calf injury by rushing back, understands this folly. Limerick, shorn of their only clinical finisher in Morrissey just as his sharpness was returning, are much worse off.

For the small-squad Shannonsiders, this schedule has also ruled out Maguire, days after the Dutchman finally made an impact — and what an impact — away to Waterford. Clifford, too, is ruled out for a few weeks, just as his game was finally coming together.

Helping the best to make the breakthrough on the continent is undoubtedly vital to the game’s progression here. The buzz generated by Dundalk’s 2016 adventure is a testament to that. But the pendulum of fairness needs to swing back towards the far less well-resourced rest in 2019. Player welfare alone demands it.

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