Johnny McDonnell’s side did themselves and Irish football proud with a performance of guts, discipline and no little skill.
It would be easy to write this one up as just another moral victory or heroic failure, but anyone who was in the RDS, or watched the game on TV, will know that the Inchicore side deserve more credit than that.
Prior to kick-off, the windswept expanse of the Dublin 4 venue briefly felt like homely Richmond Park, as a disappointingly small crowd of just over 4,500 paid tribute to the late Noel O’Reilly. Noel’s family had asked for a round of applause rather than a moment’s silence, and the moving ovation was surely carried on the wind all the way to Inchicore. Then, in what must have been one of the more unusual and memorable preludes to any European tie, the teams stood on the pitch as a verse of Noel’s favourite song — ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ — was played.
Thus was set an emotional temperature which the game, at least early on, struggled to match. Defences were on top for most of the first half, in which Pats performed admirably in the face of a stiff breeze, restricting Hertha Berlin to long-range efforts by Voronin and Cicero. Going forward in search of the goals they needed, the home side were less successful, although the busy Ryan Guy saw a fair amount of ball on the right flank.
But on the half hour, Pats almost made the crucial breakthrough with the best move of the game so far. Keith Fahey’s whipped pass found Mark Quigley in a position to threaten centre-back Simunic. One deft dropped shoulder and Quigley was in the clear but when his cross arrived at the far post, Gary Dempsey was only able to aim his header straight at keeper Drobny, who parried the ball before it rebounded off the midfielder and went wide.
A few minutes later, Raffael flummoxed Jamie Harris with an outrageous piece of skill allowing Piszczeck to play a ball across the face of the Pats goal but there was no Hertha player to turn it over the line.
Then, in almost the last act of the first half, the increasingly influential Fahey had a cross cum shot which dropped just wide of the far post. Pats also had a strong shout for a penalty when Fabian Lustenberger appeared to handle a Fahey corner.
Hertha should have put matters beyond doubt on 52 minutes when Voronin fastened onto Cicero’s long ball and broke clean through on goal. But with only Barry Ryan to beat, he blasted high and wide.
From then on, the home side did their level best to make the most of the reprieve. Twice the woodwork denied them, first when Fahey’s drive rebounded off the foot of the upright and then when, Hertha having failed to clear another Fahey corner, Gary Dempsey saw his effort thump off the same upright.
While Berlin occasionally threatened on the counter-attack — Ryan had to be alert to keep out a stinging Cicero shot — it was Pats who continued to come closest to scoring, Guy forcing Dropny to save with his feet and, late on, substitute John Murphy making contact with a Fahey cross with his knee, to send a looping effort dropping just over the top of the bar.
That was as close as they came and in the dying moments, salt was added to their wounds as full-back Damien Lynch — a contender with Fahey for man of the match — upended Cicero and received a second yellow card.
Pats manager John McDonnell hailed to his team’s mighty effort.
“We had a right go and really should have won. We had a few great chances but overall we played extremely well and definitely, should have won. We were as good as them but didn’t get a bit of luck.”
Hertha boss Lucien Favre was also complimentary about the Irish side.
“They are very good, they fight, they tackle and they are good in one-on-one situations. I have to be satisfied with the result.”
ST PATRICK’S ATHLETIC: Ryan, Lynch, Harris, Gavin, Rogers, Guy, Dempsey (Ó Cearuill 88), Fahey, Kirby (Murphy 79), Quigley, Fitzpatrick (O’Brien 79).
HERTHA BERLIN: Drobny, Friedrich, Simunic, Von Bergen, Chahed, Lustenberger (Dardai 70), Cicero, Nicu, Piszczek, (Stein 88) Raffael (Domovchiyski 64), Voronin.
Referee: Michail Koukoulakis (Greece).