There was a whiff of box office, writes Larry Ryan.
The dignitaries and politicians were in. And 5,300 more with them. The press box spilt in among the paying customers and writers’ elbows found neighbours’ ribs. A city acclimatising to sporting disappointment craved a glory night.
Still. These are nights to bean count and mind read. For accountancy and psychology. Not necessarily for football and glory.
That’s the nature of Europa League qualifier second legs. A means to an end. A road, if taken, not paved with gold but at least with some of next year’s pay cheques.
That classic first-leg scoreline — one apiece — spun a crux. Literally, advantage City. Preliminary assay test results on the away goal: Precious.
Yet early concession at home would leave a chase, with an age for more costly calamity. While a quick City goal would only invite every commentator’s stock saver for Hacken: “In many ways, their task hasn’t changed.”
Risk v reward, then? Does stick trump twist?
All week, John Caulfield had preached caution. Patience. This could not be done gung-ho. Bluff? Double-bluff? Or genuine fear factor?
Sometimes, a moment throws an early read. City advanced in numbers behind a Sean Maguire raid and were almost caught understaffed when Gustafson and Owoeri countered swiftly.
First impressions can mislead.
Soon Abubakari and Schuller were running it, feeding Gustafson. Paulinho was darting and Owoeri oozed menace. And City had dug in deep.
To the balance sheets. Dundalk’s million-buck spin of the wheel on Wednesday deepened the imperative to close the gap. Off the field this time. With €220,000 minimum at stake, 90 minutes worth two title wins, you saw the value of everything and the price too.
Slap a 20-grand tag on that save by McNulty from Owoeri, another 20 big ones on a one-on-one denial of Mohammed after a mistake by Garry Buckley.
Call it a cool 50 for Bennett’s clearance off the line from Abubakari after Bolger’s nap was interrupted.
If this was being won upstairs, speed of thought, more than psychology, held sway.
Caulfield, customarily strident in his technical area, looked perplexed.
Beforehand, he’d expressed the wish to direct a passion play, with the Cross an angry chorus line. Hopeful the claustrophobic surrounds would splash hot Cork breath on the necks of the cool Swedes, rattling them.
But the Swedes were strutting like guys who felt they’d got this. And the Cross had grown sullen and anxious. Stephen Dooley was called to his manager for instructions.
Caulfield will hardly claim delivery of a script but maybe a prompt.
A dash down the left by Kevin O’Connor carried the primary advantage of pressure relief. But. A foul. A Bolger free-kick. An O’Connor volley. A deflection. A roar. And at least two Cork TDs vacated their seats.
Hacken’s task may not have changed but their demeanour did.
A mood not lightened by Garry Buckley’s lunge at Nasiru Mohammed, that sent the Ghanaian away on a stretcher.
During the long stoppage, the benches exchanged views. And substitute Demba Savage immediately gave a corner away with a dizzy header.
The Swedes were beginning to feel the hot breath alright.
Cork hadn’t much football played. But glory was back on the menu.
“City till I die,” insisted The Shed. The few dozen Hacken visitors in the Derrynane looked for life, but the 11 on the field weren’t nearly as insistent now, the loss of the lively Mohammed a blow to more than their morale.
Nor were the maths as mind-bending now. A Hacken goal wouldn’t be terminal. Except maybe for those of us dreading extra-time.
City could afford, then, to lend composure to patience, but Caulfield wasn’t seeing it.
“You’re giving the ball away. Look. Pass it,” he pleaded, during another stoppage.
Gradually, City grew bolder, Football was breaking out, though neither keeper was exercised until Peter Abrahamsson pawed over a powerful Gearoid Morrissey drive 20 minutes from time.
Would it be first cut on the might-have-beens reel? The very idea seemed to make City anxious. Passes were going astray again, They weren’t looking. The Shed groaned.
But Paulinho scuffed when well placed and the place exhaled.
One more scare from a corner later, the glory night was delivered and the test results conclusive. Away goal precious. Home goal priceless.
Though hero Kevin O'Connor admitted the winner wasn't minted on the training ground.
"Maybe that's why it worked.... It came across harder than I expected.
"It's a great achievement. We knew they would step it up. It was a nervy first 20 minutes. But we settled down. And you can see how good we are on the counter
"The goal came at the perfect time. It hit them hard and came at a perfect time for us. A few hairy moments but we survived.
"We just wanted to be another team who could cause a shock and I think it was fully deserved."
Aware of the financial pressures?
"As a player you don't think about it. You want to enjoy the moment. It's the biggest game of the season. It's massive for the club. Worth about five league titles at this stage.
Wage demands tomorrow then?
"Not yet anyway."
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