TURNER’S CROSS in 2004, and a leaping Kevin Doyle at the back post is so far off the ground, I could only stare in amazement. City were playing Dutch side NEC Nijmegen in the second round of the Intertoto Cup and, having made my way into the first-team squad a few years previously — and then broken my leg in a recent league match — I was sitting in the stand with crutches by my side. The team had knocked out respected Swedish club Malmo FC in the first round, and then held Nijmegen to a 0–0 draw in the first leg of the second, and the place was buzzing with talk of this new City side.
Brian Lennox had personally taken the reins of the club and was keen to progress it further. He’d hired the colourful and passionate Pat Dolan as manager — which was quite some meeting of minds. Both wanted full-time football for the club; both were sceptical of the influence of English football in Ireland; both were ambitious and hungry. For a while, Dolan’s infectious enthusiasm and big plans were sufficiently backed by Lennox.
A full-time squad was assembled for the first time in the club’s history, including future Irish internationals Doyle and Shane Long. There was a sense of expectation that had not been felt around City for some years.
The Dutch, when they emerged onto our little ground at Turner’s Cross that day, all looked six-foot plus. I remember one of their players looking up at Doyle, bemused, as he hovered a good metre above him for a second. Then the crowd erupted. It was in the net and Doyle spun away in celebration, the goal enough to give us a 1-0 aggregate win.
I was sitting in the stand, still with my crutches, a few weeks later when FC Nantes came to town for the second leg of the third round tie. The French had won the first match 3–1, but our away goal had given us a fighting chance.
To the overwhelming delight of the Turner’s Cross crowd, Doyle scored and we needed just one more goal to go through. The feeling seemed to spread around the ground: we could do it. We could be the first Irish team to qualify for the group stages of a European competition. But, alas, the French broke free to score late on, and the dream had to be postponed again.
A year later, things really started to heat up within the club. Dolan departed after a dispute with Lennox, and Damien Richardson (Rico) came in for a second stint at City, having previously managed the team in 1993/94. Dolan had made the players fit and ready; Rico, when he came in, was like a grandfather to the lads, guiding us reassuringly to the top end of the league. He had the artistry and assurance to apply the finishing touches to a team primed for glory.
The European games arrived. We beat a Lithuanian side — FK Ekranas — in the first round relatively convincingly. In the second round we were drawn against the soon-to-be Swedish champions Djurgardens. The first leg was played at their National Stadium. It was my first big European game and the sun was in my eyes as I got the ball from the kick off. The natural League of Ireland tactic would’ve been to launch it into the corner, but no — they’d dropped off, far off. We had time on the ball, time to knock it around at the back. Lovely stuff.
The only problem was that once we went forward and lost the ball, we didn’t get it back for five, maybe 10 minutes. That’s 10 minutes of chasing, hurrying after your marker, organising those around you. Hard work.
They knocked it around us comfortably, and then their wingers made sudden darting runs behind us. We, the full-backs, had to cover the runs... but the ball wasn’t played: they kept it and went back to the other side of the pitch. Then they came back over to my side and their winger again sprinted like a madman, attempting to get played in behind me. Swedish internationals Tobias Hysen and Mathias Johnsen were manning the wings for Djurgardens, but my fellow full-back Danny Murphy and I held tough, as did our entire team.
The Swedes, fortunately, didn’t have enough to break us down, and in the second half, our distinguished forward Neale Fenn made the breakthrough with a goal. Fenn had spent his developing years at Tottenham and his class shone through that day. He looked the most comfortable with the ball being kept on the ground and he guided our team through the tie. Everything went through him; he held off their players, turning, swivelling and controlling the ball simultaneously.
The Swedes put us under severe pressure. I was nearing exhaustion, having matched Hysen’s sprints. They finally scored late on, but we took a respectable draw back to Cork.
We packed the Cross for the return leg, 7,000 or so squeezing into our stadium. The atmosphere was intense and it seemed some of their players were even intimidated by it. We played conservatively but effectively, holding on for the scoreless draw.
For the second year running, we’d knocked out a Swedish club in Europe. Now we were in the serious end again — at least for us. We drew the Czech side Slavia Prague in the third qualifying round, with the winners to progress to group stages. This was real history-making stuff. Unfortunately the added pressure proved too much for Rico, and he suffered a stroke. (He still managed to get in on the action, however, by being interviewed live at half-time from his hospital bed in Cork...)
After 15 minutes on the pitch in Prague, I could tell I wasn’t going to have a good day. My head was in the clouds — dark clouds. I had a nightmare. Their left-winger terrorised me from start to finish. Our keeper Michael Devine had the game of his life to give us a small chance in the second leg, but even so, we lost 2–0. I felt mortified and exposed. What had happened to me? On the flight home my mind, well versed in self-defence, desperately searched for answers.
A few days later, back at our training ground in Bishopstown, I cornered our sports psychologist and we went through some of the things that might have affected my performance. I formulated a substantial list. Perhaps it was the live TV, being broadcast back to Ireland, that had unsettled me. Or was it the presence of the unusually large group of friends and family that had travelled to Prague? Was I thinking of them? Maybe it was the dead leg I had been carrying? Or the absence of Rico?
For the return leg in Cork, we tried to intimidate them, to outmuscle them. But they were too strong, and we lost 1-2.
The gut-wrenching humiliation I experienced in Prague served me well for the rest of the season; I vowed never to leave myself exposed again. It was as though I’d been exposed to a poison: I’d suffered, but my defences had been rebuilt and were now stronger than ever.
I believe this is what happens when a player or team is exposed to a superior opponent in football or any other sport: they suffer through it and, hopefully, come out the other end more informed. I knew what it was about now, and I was ready.
For the rest of the season, I worked harder than ever before, as did the entire team. It all culminated on a memorable November night in Cork, on the final day of the campaign, when we beat Derry 2-0 to win the league.
* An insider’s account of the rise and fall of Cork City — before it was reborn as a supporters-run club — the eBook ‘Death of a Football Club?’ by Neal Horgan is published by sportsproview and is exclusively available for download for €8.99 from www.sportsproview.com. It will be available on Amazon.com and in all good book stores in coming weeks.