IT was refreshing to see Cork City show some fight in their Europa League second leg against Progrès Niederkorn, though again a case of what might have been as a soft goal saw the Luxembourg side go through on aggregate.
Also refreshing to see such a big crowd despite the difficult season the Rebel Army have been having thus far, at least rewarded with some hope and fight about a half-hour outside the nation’s capital.
Gary Buckley’s volley from the edge of the area arced beautifully into the corner of the net, and was a fantastic moment for a young man whose 2019 has been well below expectations; and when Conor McCarthy headed home a second City fans were in dreamland.
They say it’s the hope that kills you, but the total hopelessness of this 2019 season thus far means that anything positive is most welcome, even if it was crushed in the most disappointing way - Mark McNulty with another substandard save, before being beaten at his near post for the follow-up.
Last Monday night we saw Tadgh Ryan made a number of spectacular saves in the friendly game against Preston North End, leaving City fans scratching their head as to why the Limerick man hasn’t been given more of an opportunity this season.
Ryan wasn’t even considered for the Munster Senior Cup campaign nor the League Cup this season, and whether John Caulfield then and John Cotter now think Ryan isn’t up to the mark from what they see in training, having a goalkeeper who hasn’t a competitive minute under his belt as a contingency plan isn’t the sort of long-term planning that City fans are looking for.
Our goalkeeping woes this season are even more pronounced by the lack of options up front. In fact it was a minor miracle that the Rebel Army - who hadn’t scored in their four previous games - managed to net twice away in Europe without a recognised striker, Mark O’Sullivan unable to travel due to his heavily pregnant wife.
Expectant mothers wasn’t the segway this column was expecting to make between the Leesiders and Dundalk this season, but the Michael Duffy story - filed into the ‘all’s well that end’s well’ category, was one of the sweetest of the season.
One can’t possibly blame the Derry winger for abandoning his side at Dublin Airport as they departed for Riga to be with his expectant wife at the final hour, particularly given the precarious nature of being a League of Ireland football, and to have first-born baby Eli delivered during extra-time was just the best.
That Gary Rogers then put Dundalk through, and Duffy even had the opportunity to watch by his exceptionally patient partner (given the circumstances!) was extra special, in a dogged performance in the Latvian capital.
Qarabag now await the Lilywhites this week, which is further away from Dundalk than New York, and as much as we on Leeside loved to lampoon Stephen Kenny for his Captain Scott-esque recounting of the County Louth side’s trip to Russia pre-2017 Cup final, this will be undoubtedly a gruelling trip for Vinny Perth’s charges.
I would always tend to be supportive of League of Ireland clubs in Europe, perhaps my sense of patriotism for this league overriding any local rivalries - but this season has been made even easier by how little Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers’ campaigns affect Cork City’s 2019.
That this side made eventual finalists Arsenal sweat in the Azerbijani capital gives an indication of the challenge Dundalk come up against, and we would be extremely surprised if the Lilywhites can do it, but if Rogers can put in another phenomenal performance and keep a clean sheet, Perth’s side have a fantastic home European record.
Rovers’ grit and determination was as impressive as it was unexpected across both legs, particular kudos due to Roberto Lopez for grabbing a late equaliser having given away a penalty in Norway.
City fans will remember beating the Cypriots in their UEFA Champions League first qualifying encounter in 2006, but the freshest memories are of being outplayed - and out-tricked - by Larnaca. This column’s fondness of Marseille means we saw the supposed ‘minnows’ outperform the apparent French giants by six points in Group H of last year’s Europa League, who have first-hand experience of the peril of underrating the Cypriots.
Mind you, sticking seven past UCD on the weekend is a good way to get yourself prepped for the home tie, Aaron McEneff grabbed a brace and his signing from Derry has been a real tidy piece of business by Stephen Bradley. We noticed Graham Cummins, formerly (or technically still currently?) of this parish opened his account for the Hoops, and it’s a surprise to see how well he’s fit in at Tallaght.
Both sides of Dublin collaborated in last Sunday evening's victory over the Czech Republic in the UEFA European U19 Championships - Brandon Kavanagh from Rovers and Ali Reghba, just left Bohemians a few weeks ago to join Leicester City.
It's not too long ago these two were playing in the pressure cauldron that is a Dublin derby, better experience than any Premier League U23 game, any professional will tell you.
We're really looking forward to sitting down and cheering our young lads on, as they continue to represent the domestic league with distinction on the international stage, against all the odds.