A truly monumental effort this by Cork City who, two goals down from the first leg, brought a seemingly dead affair roaring back to life by scoring early in both halves in Differdange, only for Progres Niederkorn to grab the consolation goal on the night that meant so much more over the course of the whole tie.
A thoroughly deserved victory for the visitors in Luxembourg then but, with a 3-2 aggregate win, it’s Niederkorn who live up to their name and progress in this year’s Europa League.
Paying tribute to what he described as one of City’s best performances in Europe in many ties and expressing huge pride in his players, Head Coach John Cotter said: “I thought the boys were brilliant tonight. They gave everything we asked of them, and more, and it nearly was enough but unfortunately, in the end, it wasn’t.”
After a display of fire and finesse, It was certainly heart-breaking stuff for City as the final whistle blew but the concluding aggregate scoreline also stands as a reminder that it was in Turner’s Cross their cause was really lost, the side’s inspired second leg performance everything their first leg showing wasn’t.
In a compact ground that had a bit of the Athlone Stadium about it – albeit with one of the goals scenically back-dropped by wooded slopes and a busy railway line – the hundred or so City supporters occupying a couple of rows of seats on the side opposite the stadium’s main, indeed only, stand, did their best to make themselves heard above the drumming of the Niederkorn’s faithful’s relentless rhythm section.
But you could certainly hear the tiny Rebel Army after only three minutes as Karl Sheppard’s clever header back from a Colm Horgan cross into the box was met with a magnificent left-foot volley by Garry Buckley, Sebastian Flauss left helpless in the Niederkorn goal as the ball arrowed into the top corner of the net.
This was exactly what City had wanted, the dream start, and suddenly it was game on in Differdange.
The always dangerous Mayron De Almeida, a thorn in City’s side in the first leg, almost responded in kind with his own spectacular effort in the eighth minute, jinking inside from the left and curling a right-footed shot that Mark McNulty was relieved to see flash beyond his far post.
The ‘keeper was then well positioned to safely hold a driven shot from Niederkorn skipper Sebastian Thill as the home side threatened again but City, whose need for another goal was greater still, were the ones asking most of the questions, Gearoid Morrissey firing narrowly over in the 24th minute before Sheppard failed to get a clean headed contact on a corner from Daire O’Connor, the latter a player who was causing the home defence plenty of trouble with his mazy runs and inviting crosses.
But probably City’s best chance to level it in the first 45 came in the 27th minute when the always lively Joel Coustrain wriggled through in the box but, having found himself one on one with Flauss, couldn’t slide the ball past the ‘keeper’s left foot, with Sheppard unable to profit from the rebound.
City came close on a couple of other occasions but it was with a stunning repeat of their start to the first half that they levelled the tie in the very first minute of the second. With his customary tenacity, Conor McCormack won a free just inside the opposition half. Horgan then cleverly played a cross-field ball to O’Connor who was unmarked out on the left and, as defenders tried to close him down, he lofted in a deep cross which Conor McCarthy headed home off the inside of the post.
2-2. Prog rocked. Cork flying. Mission no longer impossible.
But, as we know, games can change in an instant and, to the huge relief of the locals, that’s exactly what happened in the 68th minute as substitute Issa Bah, who was barely on the pitch, reacted quickest in the box to a parry by McNulty who appeared to have pushed the ball to safety, the winger somehow finding the roof of the net with a fierce shot from the tightest of angles.
Now it was 3-2 on aggregate to Progres but City still knew that if they could find one more breakthrough, it would put them back ahead in the tie on away goals. But despite their best efforts it wasn’t to be, even with the visitors bringing on set-piece specialist Kevin O’Connor deep into injury time to take a free-kick which, as it cleared the crossbar, took City’s last hope with it, leaving Niederkorn to prepare for Rangers in the next round.
Cork City: McNulty, Horgan, McCarthy, McLoughlin, Hurley (K O’Connor 95), Morrissey, McCormack, Buckley, Coustrain (Casey 88), D O’Connor (Griffin 82), Sheppard
FC Progres Niederkorn: Flauss, Marques, Skenderovic, Hall, Karayer, Vogel, Muratovic (Bah 65), Silaj, Thill (Ferino 91), De Almeida,Tekiela (Floric 85).
Referee: Matthew De Gabriele (Malta).