The map of Europe presents a very different picture now to the days John Caulfield was gnawing at the ankles of elite club defenders.
Back then, a trip to Estonia would have meant a trip to the outer reaches of the crumbling remnants of the Soviet Union, a grey backwater cautiously peering out at western Europe. These days it’s a popular weekend destination for Irish travellers and a symbol of the new Europe. Different times.
The mindset of Irish football has also changed forever since those pioneering days for Cork City and other League of Ireland teams.
“When I was playing it was a winter season, Europe was nearly your first game of the season,” recalls the Cork City boss, “The chances of progressing were slim, and it was seen as a bonus to be in Europe and a holiday to play in Europe and to experience it.
“Now, with all the new countries involved and the experience of last year, it’s showing you that you can get through a round or two if you play well.”
In Caulfield’s playing days, City pulled off some stunning results under Noel O’Mahony. Dave Barry’s goal famously secured them a Uefa Cup first leg draw 1-1 against Bayern Munich in 1991 before bowing out in Germany. In 1993, they rattled Turkish champions Galatasaray before going out 3-1 on aggregate after a titanic struggle. “We sat back too much,” rues Caulfield. “If there was a game in Europe where there was one regret, that was one game where we probably didn’t go for it.” Gala dumped Eric Cantona and Manchester United out of the Champions League in the next round as the Red Devils’ received an infamous ‘Welcome to Hell’.
Different times. “It was surreal stuff, really,” says Caulfield “Playing in Istanbul, in that stadium, was an amazing experience. The intimidation and hostility there was incredible. The Bayern game was like winning the lotto. To draw with them in Cork and then playing at Munich’s Olympic Stadium against one of the top clubs in the world, it was fairytale stuff. The bigger picture, though, was you knew you weren’t going to progress. It was all about enjoying the occasion.
“Now, it’s about winning.”
Different times indeed. Cork City go into tomorrow’s Europa League first qualifying round first leg clash with Levadia Tallinn (4.30pm Irish) as warm favourites to win the tie. Caulfield is less bullish, and believes the outcome is too close to call.
“I think expectations are a bit unrealistic after last year,” he says. “We won a couple of rounds and Dundalk got to the group stages but last year’s success happened out of the blue for Irish football. People think that’s how things are going to go now for Irish teams in Europe. It’s not realistic.
“Levadia played Slavia Prague last year, and beat them 3-1 in Estonia and Prague beat them 2-0 in the Czech Republic and only went through on away goals. If we drew Slavia people would be saying how tough a draw it is. So that puts the quality of the opposition in context.
“I still feel it’s a game where there won’t be much in it and if we play to form, we’re capable of winning the tie.”
The manager will also draw on his experiences on the pitch and in the dugout in European competition when setting out his team tonight.
As a player, City bowed out to Galatasaray losing the second leg 1-0 at Bishopstown when a single goal win the other way would have put them through. A cagey approach proved costly.
Last year, the lack of a goal in Genk last year — despite an impressive performance — ultimately put paid to City’s European journey.
“Basing it on last year. We scored away in Linfield, we scored away in Hacken and went through in both games. We didn’t score in Genk away — we almost did — and in Turner’s Cross, Genk knew if they scored at all, they were home and dry.
“The away goal is crucial. We need to be careful, we won’t be going gung-ho but it’ll be disappointing if we don’t get that goal.”
City are expected to have Steven Beattie and Alan Bennett available tomorrow night after the pair missed the 2-1 win at Derry City last Friday night.
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