This was not the return to the Premier Division which Cork City were hoping for on a night in which a defensive lapse and a couple of squandered chances for the visitors meant that a well-organised UCD deservedly emerged with the spoils in what was, overall, a disappointing game at the Belfield Bowl.
Manager Tommy Dunne gave competitive debuts to new signings John Dunleavy, Shane O’ Connor and Tadhg Purcell – the striker in the lone role up front — while there were also starts for returning favourites Colin Healy and skipper Dan Murray, the latter coming back on the first day of the new season to the ground where, on the final day of last season, he lifted the Premier League trophy with Shamrock Rovers.
But for the Leesiders’ return to the top-flight, the visitors were missing two of last year’s star performers, Davin O’ Neill and Daryl Horgan both falling foul of a flu bug.
Martin Russell’s UCD have a well-earned reputation for playing good football but, in the early stages of this first night, both sides took time to find their feet on a poor playing surface. But 15 minutes in, City came close to breaking the deadlock with a sweeping move which began with centre-half Gavin Kavanagh putting Ian Turner up the right channel with a terrific ball. Turner, in for the absent Daryl Horgan, touched the ball inside for Purcell and when he laid it off for Colin Healy, the midfielder seemed certain to score but, instead, steered his effort just wide.
At the other end, Mark McNulty had little enough to do in the Cork goal until 33 minutes in when the visitors were abruptly given a harsh lesson in the realities of life in the Premier Division. It what was UCD’s first real spell of pressure, Chris Lyons had plenty of time to take advantage of statuesque defending and square the ball across goal to set up Mark Langtry for a close-range finish. Here was proof for Cork that, in the top-flight, any lapses in concentration are liable to be ruthlessly punished. Five minutes after the restart, Cork had a great opportunity to level the game but Purcell miscued horribly directly in front of goal. On the hour mark, Tommy Dunne made his move, taking off Colin Healy and sending on Vinny Sullivan as Cork went 4-4-2 to a bid to retrieve the game.
And the change certainly injected some fresh momentum into the visitors, UCD having to call on some finely judged defensive tackles and blocks to keep the red shirts at bay. A Shane O’ Connor free-kick, drilled tamely into the wall, summed up a disappointing debut for the former Ipswich Town man and, with twelve minutes to go, he was replaced by Cathal Lordan. Before that, Purcell, who looked short of match fitness, had also made way, with the highly-rated Jamie Murphy looking bright and lively in his brief time on the pitch
Cork continued to press for the equaliser but, in the absence of last year’s top scorer Graham Cummins, were seriously lacking in penetration, a Sullivan shot on the turn which flew harmlessly over the top and, five minutes from the end, a Jamie Murphy header from a superb Dunleavy cross which also cleared the bar, as close as they came to unlocking a UCD defence well marshalled by captain Michael Leahy.
To their credit, the travelling support, in a crowd of just under 700, cheered their team off at the end. But that’s only as it should be. Considering where the club was two years ago, City have already achieved a great deal in a short time and one would like to think they will be stronger for the tough lessons learned on their first night back in the big time.
UCD: Barron, Ledwith, Leahy, O’ Connor, Langtry (McCabe 89), Mulhall, O’ Conor, Kavanagh, Nangle, Benson (Clarke 73), Lyons .
CORK CITY: McNulty, Dunleavy, Murray, Kavanagh, Murphy, Turner, Duggan, Healy (Sullivan 60) , Morrissey, O’ Connor (Lordan 78), Purcell (Murphy 73)
Referee: Padraigh Sutton
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