It was the promise of this fixture which helped save Cork City at the 11th hour in the High Court and, on a lovely late summer’s evening, the ground rose to warmly acclaim both the visitors and the home team as they took the pitch in front of a crowd of around 3,500.
The competing attraction of live television coverage of Italy versus Bulgaria, coupled with Celtic’s less than stellar line-up, might have meant that the full house signs were never in danger of going up but there still a smattering of familiar faces in the visiting selection, not least recent stars of the domestic game Graham Carey – back in Parkhead after his impressive loan spell at Bohemians – and the incomparable McCourt.
The famous hooped shirts also played host to a couple of established names like Mark Wilson and Barry Robson in a selection which, otherwise, mixed aspiring youth with first team irregulars.
For Cork, Paul Doolin had opted not to give too many of the first team a night off – the likes of Gamble, Murray, Murphy, O’ Donnell and Kuduzovic were all present and correct, although the manager did find room to get neophytes Paul Deasy and Robbie Waters on from the start.
But it was the dancing feet of McCourt which magnetised the eye almost from the moment referee Alan Kelly set the game in motion and it took only ten minutes for the Derry man to break the deadlock. He did it in sensational style too, cutting in from the left from before crashing a fierce right-footed drive from outside the box into the top corner of Mark McNulty’s net.
You couldn’t have wished for a more thrillingly vivid example of what the League of Ireland lost and what Celtic stand to gain if, on top of his innate skill and newly developed upper body strength, McCourt can add consistency to his game – especially in the area of decision-making – and go on to establish himself in the SPL.
Graham Carey’s pace on the left wing was also an early feature of Celtic’s performance, as the visitors dominated possession and forced Cork City to play on the counter-attack. Just past the half-hour mark, Gamble began and ended a neat move with a close-range finish but the effort was ruled offside.
But the taste of a goal breathed fresh life into the home side as battle was more properly joined in a game which, to judge by some of the borderline tackles going in, was friendly by name but hardly by nature.
But still it was Celtic exerting the lion’s share of the attacking pressure. Five minutes before the break, Mark McNulty was called into action to tip over a sizzling Robson free kick before McCourt twisted and turned another couple of defenders only, this time, to blaze the finish high into the Shed End.
McNulty then almost spilled a Koki Mizuno shot into his own net, before hastily retrieving the situation. Inevitably, however, it was McCourt who almost had the last word of the half, taking the scenic route across the box and leaving a trail of defenders in his wake before, this time, using the power of his left foot to test the firmness of McNulty’s raised hand.
A Cork side showing four changes came quickly out of the traps for the second half, skipper Dan Murray heading just wide of the Celtic post. And the home side thought they’d levelled affairs in the 66th minute only to have a second goal ruled offside, as Billy Dennehy slid in at the far post to force Danny Murphy’s driven low free over the line.
Next, two substitutes combined to threaten something of a replica goal, except that this time the ball was in the air as Guntars Siligailis arrived at the same post and only just failed to convert impressive ex-Celt youngster Diarmuid O’Carroll’s excellent cross.
But much worse was to follow for the Latvian striker when, finding himself unmarked directly in front of goal, he somehow contrived to put the ball over the bar from the edge of the six yard box.
Celtic managed to weather the mini-storm, and despite another late Cork surge protected their lead to the end. The only disappointing feature of a decent game was that the magician McCourt was virtually anonymous in the second half. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh – he had given us a memorable glimpse of fantasy football in the first.
CORK CITY: McNulty (Connor 45), Lordan, Long (Mulcahy 59), Murray, Murphy, O’Neill (Siligailis 65), Gamble (Duggan 45), O’Donnell, Waters (Dennehy 45), Paul Deasy (O’Carroll 45), Kudozovic ( Cambridge 62)
GLASGOW CELTIC: Cervi (Giordana 82), Wilson, Thompson (Marr 45), Gallagher (Vallers 82), Conroy, Crosas (Beuzelin 45), Robson, McCourt, Mizunoar (Santonocito 78), Carey, McGowan (Kurakins 2
Referee: A Kelly.