Hollywood scriptwriters might have demanded a Cork City victory against the reigning league champions on the night club legend John Caulfield took his first bow as manager in front of a terrific attendance of 5,322 at a throbbing Turner’s Cross.
Instead, we got something much more true to football life but no less compelling: a 1-1 draw which was all the more deserved for the home side given they had to play the last 25 minutes with 10 men, after skipper John Dunleavy was sent off as a rash of bookings — six in all — meant an evening fraught with yellow peril was always in danger of turning red.
In the end, the home support rose in celebration of a performance and a result which, had the circumstances been more kind, might easily have seen Caulfield celebrate a fairytale start to his tenure.
For City, the new gaffer wasn’t the only familiar face back at the Cross, with Liam Kearney taking up position on one flank and Billy Dennehy on the other, new man Anthony Elding hoping to make the most of their service as the spearhead of the attack.
The Pat’s line-up needed no introduction, with Ireland international Keith Fahey making a welcome return to League of Ireland action to further burnish Liam Buckley’s already accomplished array of midfield and attacking talent.
But, in a blow to the champions just before kick off, Killian Brennan was forced to pull out of the game during the warm-up with a groin problem. In keeping with the cup tie atmosphere in the stands, the game had something of a frantic opening, with tackles flying in, passes misplaced on both sides and the referee’s whistle the most prominent feature of the early exchanges.
In the 12th minute, the visitors almost got the breakthrough out of nothing, Chris Forrester — under pressure from the excellent Brian Lenihan — stabbing wide from in front of goal after a lobbed Conan Byrne pass had caught the Cork central defence napping.
Five minutes later, City almost made the most of the reprieve, a powerful Colin Healy half-volley from outside the box whistling just past the far post as Pat’s keeper Brendan Clarke scrambled across his goal.
Then City came close again with their best move of the game up to that point, Elding dropping deep to feed Billy Dennehy on the left and when the winger’s driven low ball flew across the six-yard box, Garry Buckley came sliding in a split-second too late to make contact.
Caulfield was kicking every ball on the sideline and, if possible, even more animated as, much to the chagrin of the locals, referee Padraig Sutton saw fit to hand out four yellow cards to the home side in the 35 minutes of what was a keenly-contested but scarcely X-rated battle.
True, Cork’s combative approach was definitely unsettling the champions but, playing some fine football too, the home side were clearly in the ascendant as half-time approached. In the 40th minute, Elding won a free on the edge of the box after a push by Ken Oman, the resultant Billy Dennehy effort being deflected wide for a corner. Colin Healy took it, skipper Dunleavy got the headed flick-on and when Oman could only flip the ball up into the air as he tried to defend the far post, Garry Buckley was on hand to nod home from close range and send Turner’s Cross into raptures.
It was never going to be easy for City to retain their narrow advantage over the champions and, almost on the hour mark, Pat’s were level. Lee Lynch supplied the fine cross from the right, which floated just out of reach of Dan Murray, and striker Christy Fagan was perfectly placed to direct a textbook downward header to the corner of the net.
Caulfield sent on Mark O’Sullivan for Elding in the 65th minute but, almost immediately, there was an enforced reshuffle for the home side as Dunleavy was harshly punished for a late challenge, his second yellow of the night sending the captain to the line.
To their credit, the 10 men didn’t simply sit back and invite a siege, full-back Lenihan driving forward from the back whenever the opportunity allowed, while sub O’Sullivan battled with admirable determination on his own up front.
Looking to complete the comeback, Liam Buckley added to his team’s firepower by sending on Mark Quigley and former City man Daryl Kavanagh but, with DanMurray a model of composure at the back, City held out for a thoroughly deserved point with which to get the season up and running.
M McNulty; B Lenihan, D Murray, D Dennehy, J Dunleavy; L Kearney, G Buckley, G Morrissey, C Healy, B Dennehy; A Elding (O’Sullivan 65).
B Clarke; G O’Brien, K Oman, K Browne, I Bermingham; K Fahey, G Bolger, L Lynch; C Byrne (Quigley 79), C Forrester, C Fagan (D Kavanagh 84).
Referee: P Sutton (Clare).