But, in the immediate aftermath, it must have felt more like a defeat for the Leesiders, as ace Hoops marksman Gary Twigg poached an equaliser deep into time added on to cancel out an earlier freak goal by Gavin Kavanagh which had Cork dreaming of three points right up to what proved to be the bitter end.
Credit must go to the visitors, however, for refusing to give up, even after they had been reduced to 10 men when Conor Powell was shown a harsh red with just over 10 minutes left in normal time.
“That’s why we’re champions,” sang the travelling support, as they celebrated a sensational end to the game. In the cold light of day, there was something for both sides to take from the night, Rovers retaining their unbeaten record and Cork finally getting a point on the board in their first season back in the top-flight, watched by a big crowd of 4,324 at Turner’s Cross.
With Shane Duggan suspended following his red card against Drogheda United and Colin Healy confined to the bench after injury, Cork City boss Tommy Dunne called on John Dunleavy to play in the centre of the park, with Ian Turner replacing him in the right-back role.
Rovers, reflecting their 100% start, were unchanged for a third league game in succession, although the same couldn’t be said for City who were ordered to play in their away strip by referee Neil Doyle after he decided the dark green home kit clashed with the visitors’ all black.
After the sides exchanged early sights of goal in an even opening, Rovers began to exert superiority and dictate the tempo, though their best chances still came from set-pieces. Ken Oman could have done better with a header while dead ball specialist Killian Brennan bent a free wide of Mark McNulty’s goal. Skipper Dan Murray, commanding at the back for City throughout, was called on to nullify his old team-mate Twigg, as Rovers continued to dominate the ball but, though the gulf in class between the reigning champions and last year’s First Division top dogs was clear for long spells in the first half, Cork refused to wilt.
In the dying minutes of the first half, their persistence began to pay off, the ball coming off the head of Hoops centre-half Craig Sives, under pressure in the air from Davin O’ Neill, which forced Oscar Jansson into making the first big save of the night. On the stroke of half-time and in a further encouraging sign for the home side, Shane O’Connor sent a shot whistling just wide of the far post after a clever flick from O’Neill had set up the former Ipswich man.
The second half saw City growing in confidence and getting on the front foot for the first time in the game. Four minutes short of the hour mark, the increasingly influential Daryl Horgan combined superbly with Davin O’Neill only to have his effort snuffed out by the alert Jansson.
But the Rovers keeper was left looking embarrassed in the 63rd minute as Cork’s much improved performance was rewarded in bizarre fashion when a speculative long ranger from Kavanagh took a wicked bounce right in front of Jansson and found the back of the net to send The Shed wild.
The night looked certain to belong to Cork when, 15 minutes later, Powell was harshly shown a red card for a challenge on Gearoid Morrissey which, though late, had no discernible malice in it.
Substitute Tadhg Purcell then blew a great chance to seal the deal for the Leesiders, shooting wide with only the keeper to beat.
The final 10 minutes of the game were played almost exclusively in the Cork half as the 10 men stormed forward in search of an equaliser.
With most in the crowd desperately calling for the final whistle, Cork seemed just about to get over the line when, from a Billy Dennehy cross, Oman headed back into a crowded goalmouth and there was Twigg to nod home the latest of late equalisers for the champions.
CORK CITY: McNulty, Turner, Murray, Kavanagh, Murphy, Horgan, Morrissey, Turner, O’Connor (Healy 69), O’Neill (Purcell 75), Sullivan.
SHAMROCK ROVERS: Jansson, Gilbert, Sives, Oman, Powell, Brennan (Kavanagh 72), Finn, Rice (Turner 75), Dennehy, O’Neill (Greene 60), Twigg.
Referee: Neil Doyle (Dublin).