The dream beforehand had been of a box-office clash with Rangers but the reality, on an evening when Cork City repeatedly pressed the self-destruct button, was something more like a nightmare as, after a first half in which the home side conceded two goals and also missed a penalty, the resultant 0-2 defeat gives Progres Niederkorn what looks like full control of this Europa League First Qualifying Round tie ahead of next week’s second leg in Luxembourg.
For City, deployed once again in a 3-5-2 formation, there had been a starting place for new signing Joel Coustrain while the re-signed Mark O’Sullivan had to settle for a place on the bench at kick off, along with Alan Bennett and Daire O’Connor among others. It wouldn’t be long, however, before dire circumstances for the home side dictated that striker O’Sullivan would enter the fray.
At a sun-splashed Turner’s Cross, with Ireland U21 manager Stephen Kenny and former City hero Seanie Maguire and his Preston team-mate Graham Burke among the attendance of 3,137, the home side had looked to get off to a quick start against visitors who’d struggled on their travels to overcome the amateurs of Cardiff Metrolpolitan University in the previous round, losing 2-1 in the second leg and only going through on an away goal.
By common consent, City’s performance against Bohemians last week had been one of their more promising of the season so far but, even so, the result — a second scoreless draw in succession — had highlighted a recurring deficiency that they urgently needed to rectify last night: a costly failure to convert chances into goals.
But of no less importance, of course, was keeping the clean sheet that would mean the men from Luxembourg wouldn’t leave Cork with a precious away goal.
But that hope was dashed after only 10 minutes in a moment of utter self-destruction at the back as, with his team mates having already made a meal of clearing their lines, Colm Horgan, on his European debut, contrived to hand the ball on a plate close to the the near post to Belmin Muratovic.
The Progres number 10 was hardly able to believe his luck as he made the very most of the gift by beating Mark McNulty from a narrow angle.
And, just ten minutes later, things went from bad to worse for Cork and Horgan, as the wing-back brought down Mayron De Almeida in the box and, after picking himself up, the Belgian, one of Niederkorn’s more eye-catching players on the night, blasted the resultant spot kick past McNulty.
The shocking double whammy saw John Cotter forced to take drastic action even before the half-way point of the first half, the unfortunate Horgan promptly called ashore as O’Sullivan was sent into the fray.
And, almost immediately, a reckless foul in the box on Conor McCarthy appeared to throw City a lifeline as the Latvian referee again pointed to the spot but this time in front of the delighted Shed End. However, on an evening when everything was going wrong for the Rebels, skipper Karl Sheppard saw the dive of Progres ‘keeper Sebastian Flauss deflect his driven penalty over the top.
The second half was a prolonged exercise in frustration and growing dismay for City and their fans, with Progres, two goals to the good, understandably happy enough to concede possession for the most part. However the home side, for all their endeavour, did precious little to directly threaten the visitors’ goal, ‘keeper Flauss able to enjoy an almost entirely untroubled second 45 between the posts.
Indeed, it was Progres who came closest to adding to their tally on one or two occasions, their failure to do so the only small mercy for City on a European night to forget at Turner’s Cross and one which leaves John Cotter’s team needing the kind of stirring, if improbable, comeback in Luxembourg that, after the devastating setbacks of the first half had taken their toll, simply never looked on the cards in Cork.
CORK CITY: McNulty, McCarthy, Casey, McLoughlin, Horgan (O’Sullivan 24), Morrissey, McCormack, Buckley (Boylan 60), Hurley, Coustrain (Crowley 80), Sheppard.
FC PROGRES NIEDERKORN: Flauss, Laterza, Skenderovic, Hall, Karayer, Vogel, Muratovic (Mmaee 71), Silaj, Thill (Ferino 87), De Almeida, Tekiela (Marques 92) Referee: Aleksanders Anufrijevs (Latvia).