Cork City v Genk: A battle of hearts and minds right to the end

After 14 minutes at Turner’s Cross last night, Genk’s Thomas Buffel slapped a cap on one money-making venture.

The finish was as matter of fact as the shut of a ledger, sidefooted unsympathetically.

The effect was eerie. A ground that had rumbled for a quarter-hour, charged up on novelty and possibility, fell silent, save the beat of a drum and the cheer of a few score topless Belgians.

The Shed, which had pogoed impressively through The Banks — maybe the least pogo-friendly number going — sunk onto their heels.

It was cruel on an occasion that threatened to really fizz.

The Belgians had started nervously, Wilfried Ndidi thumping it out of play and the place rocked as City forced mistakes and Genk manager Peter Maes berated his players several times for their lack of composure.

But the away goal threat hangs so heavy over these nights.

One poor soul spent the opening exchanges praying a mantra. ‘Don’t concede. Don’t concede’. Having conceded, people processed at varying paces how the contest was essentially over.

For four, maybe five seconds, the Belgian visitors had the airwaves to themselves.

And the roar gradually went up again. City. City City.

It wasn’t entirely over, of course. City needed three. But it was a reminder too that the night’s second mission was still on.

The battle for hearts and minds. Lent added persuasiveness by Dundalk’s glamour heroics, could they convince 4,000-odd non regulars this is a place that could feel like home on a Friday night? Revenue-wise, direct debit can, long run, trump lump sum.

On nights like this, it is easy to sniff about bandwagons and event-chasers, as some of the “I preferred their early stuff” League of Ireland contingent like to do.

Or you could take the sensible view of Cork operations chief Eanna Buckley. “The hardest thing is to get them inside the gate once.” Eanna has lost count of those who left surprised. “The pitch, the facilities, the standard. Didn’t know it was that good.”

His plan to turn visitors into fans? “They will be no gimmicks. We can’t control the result, but we’ll try to control everything else.”

Last night, the pitch was good, the weather and stewards obliging, the ring of security steel around the topless Belgians thorough, and the seats were grand, though many of the uninitiated wandered baffled trying to secure one.

But it was hard for John Caulfield’s lads to close the deal. Hard to reel off a sales pitch, when you’re snowed under with paperwork.

Chasing the skipping Leon Bailey, running into the vast Dewaest at the back. Tripping on Ndidi’s heels, once he settled.

City stayed with it. Sean Maguire chased as many lost causes as a Harlan Coben anthology. Beattie wriggled and fell hopefully for a penalty. Bolger kept order.

But it was rough around the edges. Fraught. Gearoid Morrissey misplaced a pass, Garry Buckley screwed a cross behind, Stephen Dooley allowed promise escape under his foot.

And the groans grew closer together, like contractions.

But hearts were still in it. At City corners, one dad reminded a small boy, clearly new to all of this, of the basics. “Watch the goal.” If Dad could hope, after all he’d likely seen, what excuse this kid?

At one of those corners, Kenny Browne volleyed over from close order. The boy was watching the goal, hands on his head.

Just before the break, centre-back Dewaest was more accurate from a Genk corner and it really was all over.

But the other big job was still on. Eanna Buckley says that when City give out 50 free tickets to primary schools, typically 20 or so get used. Out of those, the theory is just one might become, a decade on, a season ticket holder.

In the 63rd minute, Alan Bennett rose to head home Kevin O’Connor’s free kick. It meant little or nothing to the principle business, on this night, but the roar was long and loud.

Looking around, the boy was standing on his seat. I noticed he was wearing a Cork GAA Chill top. But his hands were above his head. He watched the goal and got his reward.

Those who stuck it out until the end got their reward with the missed Genk spotter. And the generous acclaim for the players at the whistle was for more than the night.

All wasn’t lost last night either.


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