It was a case of late heartbreak for Cork City on Valentine’s night as an 86th-minute Ciaran Kilduff goal delivered victory for Shelbourne on their return to the Premier Division, leaving Neale Fenn’s new-look side with much to ponder as they now face into the daunting test of back to back away games against Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk.
For both these sides, but for different reasons, this felt a more like first day at big school rather than first night of a new season. For the hosts, it was all about seeing how Fenn’s fledglings would fly at their first attempt while, for the visitors, the game marked the club’s re-admission to the top-flight after an absence of seven years.
In a sign of changed times at Turner’s Cross, some of the most familiar faces on the pitch belonged to Shelbourne, with Karl Sheppard making a quick return to Leeside to lend his experience and prodigious workrate to a side which, as well as hosting some promising young talent, also included other seasoned campaigners like Kilduff, Ryan Brennan and, wearing the captain’s armband, the well-travelled Gary Deegan.
As the faithful returned to the Cross for the start of another campaign – with a decent Shels travelling support helping to push the attendance to 3,961 - feverish debate among the locals was more or less equally divided between the potential for a Preston North End takeover and how many players might be recognisable in their team’s starting XI. These are interesting times at City, to say the least.
When it came to kick-off, all was revealed on the personnel front, Fenn fielding a side which contained no less than eight debutants for the club, with newly installed skipper Gearoid Morrissey the sole survivor from the 2017 double-winning side and Ronan Hurley and Daire O’Connor the only other players with previous first-team appearances for City under their belts.
That was inevitably going to make it hard for the home side to gel and, given it was also a step up for the opposition, it was perhaps understandable that there was a loose, nervy and even frantic feel to the opening exchanges, with both sides struggling to keep possession of the ball and first-night tension evident when City’s Arsenal loan signing, centre-half Joseph Olowu, had a coming together with Kilduff which required the calming intervention of referee Andriano Reale.
Among so many new faces in the City ranks, Dylan McGlade, a threat down the left side, and Henry Ochieng, always looking to direct the traffic or drive forward from the base of the midfield, were quick to catch the eye. But typical of a first half in which the Rebels promised far more than they delivered was a passage of play on the half-hour mark which saw the ball moved swiftly from defence to attack in a brace of superb solo bursts by first Cian Coleman and then Daire O’Connor. But when the latter fed an inviting pass to Kyron Stabana, who had overlapped into a great position on the right side of the box, the full-back then completely over-hit the final ball across the face of the Shels goal.
Of the two teams, City were definitely seeing more of the ball in the final third but without creating any really clear-cut chances and, coming up to the break, the visitors almost made them pay when, in the game’s first real effort on goal, Ryan Brennan met Dayle Rooney’s cross with a header which thumped back into play off the post.
Into the second half, and with McGlade now struggling for end product after his promising start, the winger made way for QPR loan signing Deshane Dalling on the hour. Minutes later, City’s new ‘keeper Liam Bossin was called into serious action for the first time, doing well to spread himself and keep out Kilduff after Cian Coleman had been muscled off the ball and Sean Quinn had put the Shels striker clean through on the City goal.
But even though the visitors had come much more into the game, it looked like it was the home side who should really have taken the lead in the 78th minute when, from a Daire O’Connor cross, the unmarked Olowu narrowly missed the target with a header from almost directly in front of goal.
But then, from an even more inviting position in front of the Shed End, Kilduff was not found wanting in the 86th minute when, after a Sheppard corner had seen an initial effort by the visitors come back off the crossbar, the veteran striker was in the right place at the right time to nod the rebound over the line and take the three points back to Tolka Park.
CORK CITY: Bossin, Stabana, Redmond, Olowu, Hurley, Coleman, Morrissey, Ochieng (Byrne 87), O’Connor, McGlade (Dalling 60), Dillon (O’Brien-Whitmarsh 70)
SHELBOURNE: Brady, Friel, Byrne, O’Reilly, Rooney (Kabia 80), Deegan, Quinn, Sheppard, Brennan (Farrell 56), Kilduff
Referee: Adriano Reale (Kildare)