IT’S a season where enjoyable moments have been few and far between for Cork City, but hope springs eternal with the advent of European football.
Luxembourg’s Progrès Niederkorn are the visitors to Turner’s Cross tonight as City look to lay down a marker in the Europa League first qualifying round first leg. Head coach John Cotter will take charge for a continental tie for the first time, but while it’s a precious moment for him, he is aware of the greater importance.
“It’s a great opportunity,” he says, “but not just games like this, every week it’s a proud moment for me to be going over and doing that.
“When I first took over, I said I’d been coming here since I was a kid with my dad, European games are always special at Turner’s Cross, it creates an atmosphere around the city.
“But I wouldn’t be thinking about myself in this, it’s about getting the players ready and ensuring the supporters come to back the players.
“We’ll be trying to give the supporters something to cheer about, the fans have been phenomenal and they should never underestimate the role they play or the impact it has on the players, especially when it seems like they’re tiring, it gives them that extra bit.”
City haven’t had a win in six SSE Airtricity League Premier Division games, though the scoreless draws with Finn Harps and Bohemians in their previous two games were indicative of an improvement, with greater defensive solidity displayed.
Cotter doesn’t think the Europe was a distraction, though.
“To be fair, we didn’t speak about Thursday until Saturday morning, none of us had mentioned it,” he says.
“Obviously, the performance Friday night was good and training has been very good from there. Fellas are bursting for it now and everyone came in Wednesday really looking forward to getting going and putting in another good performance in front of our own supporters.”
While there is a chunk of the City side who will be experiencing European football for the first time, Cotter believes there are enough players in the team who can impart their wisdom.
“You still have Conor Mac [McCarthy], who has featured in Europe, you still have Seán McLoughlin, Garry Buckley, Gearóid [Morrissey], Conor McCormack, Alan Bennett has huge experience, Karl Sheppard, Mark McNulty, all these guys have been around,” he says.
“The knowledge they can pass on to the players, on and off the pitch, during the game and in training, is great.
“The only way you can get experience is by playing, anyway.
“We’ll do our work and we’ve done a lot of it already, so we’ll be well-prepared.”
One of those making his European bow is Colm Horgan.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he says.
“It’s my first opportunity to actually play in European football, it should be a great experience.
“It’s something worth being excited for and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
“Obviously, we had to get through Friday first and I thought it was a good performance there. After that, we could just set our sights on Thursday.”
What does the Galwegian think will be different compared to domestic football?
“I expect it to be a lot more technical,” he says.
“From what I hear, teams feel each other out first and foremost. The first 20 minutes is kind of like a boxing match, finding your range, and then after that it kind of gets into gear.
“I’m expecting something like that but you never know, every game is different.”
Last year, injury ruled Horgan out of the games against Legia Warsaw in the Champions League and Rosenborg in the Europa League.
“Those kinds of games and the cup run and the important league games are the ones that really hit home most,” he says.
“Every game you’re sitting up there is difficult to watch when you’re not available but definitely the Legia and Rosenborg games would have been great to be available for.
“Not to say I would have played in either of them but to be available for selection would have been unbelievable.”
Having recovered from another injury this season, Horgan has regained his place in the team and the last two games have seen him operate as a wing-back in a 3-5-2 rather than as a conventional right-back.
“Yeah, I probably should have had a goal or two the last day,” he says, “I had a bit of a blood-rush to the head when I had that volley against Bohs — I saw myself dinking the ’keeper but I blasted the ball over the bar.
“It’s definitely an enjoyable role, you get forward a lot more and get in attacking crosses at the back stick. It’s tiring but it’s good.”
While goals have been hard to come by for City this season, Horgan feels that the most important thing is to defend well in the home leg.
“We could draw nil-all at home and then draw one-all away and go through,” he says.
“We go out every game to try to win and to score as many goals as possible. In the last two games, it wasn’t to be but that wasn’t through a lack of trying, I don’t think anyone at the games would have said that.
“Hopefully now we can take our chances on Thursday and take a lead to Luxembourg but it’s going to be a tough game.”
Should they get through, they would probably be playing Scottish side Rangers, but Horgan isn’t getting ahead of himself.
“It’s been mentioned,” he says, “not around the dressing room but I’ve had people saying it to me.
“There’s no point saying it ourselves unless we actually do the business. We just have to take it one game at a time.”