THIS coming Thursday is a make or break game in so many different ways, with City on the cusp of something great if they can overcome AEK Larnaca in what will be a sticky heat in eastern Cyprus.
Sean Maguire and Kevin O’Connor’s last game for the club, a very comfortable draw to leave a real chance to get to the playoff round, and a special team, some of the protagonists we’re extremely unlikely to see the likes of again in a City jersey.
City fans will be dying to see this Rebel Army side push on a step further from last year’s exploits, which will require at least a 1-0 win on Thursday night, as well as victory against either Dinamo Minsk or Macedonia’s FK Rabotnički over two legs in the third round, and a chance to bank another €480,000 as well as face some of Europe’s biggest teams.
The Leesiders had the likes of Zenit St Petersburg, and former UEFA Champions League winners Olympique de Marseille in their third round draw group, but with Minsk side who scraped through against St Patrick’s Athletic getting the away goal in a 1-1 draw last week, City could be feeling pretty confident should they draw the side from Belarus.
The side from Skopje weren’t exactly on fire last season either, finishing 29 points behind winners and city rivals Vardar, with a 14-12-10 record, while John Caulfield’s unrelenting side powered on to their 20th victory in 21 games with a 2-0 defeat over a Bray Wanderers in all kinds of trouble off the field.
It was funny to hear talks in the media last week of the need for Bray to attract some investment in the club, when our own side have shown the league the power of fan ownership, revolutionising ourselves as the laughing stock of the league under previous ownerships, to now the standard bearer of how to run a football club in Ireland.
Not everything is perfect of course, but looking at the plight of various sides and supporters who have been in the same hellish position as ourselves not so long ago, and comparing it now with a league title almost certainly on the way, regular progression in European competitions, and the financial stability, proper governance and accountability to back it up, I know which one I would chose every time.
On the pitch however Sunday’s game further underlined how much Cork City will miss Sean Maguire once he departs for pastures new at the end of the week. Maguire scored the first – equalling Pat Morley’s record league total of 20 – and did brilliantly to setup Jimmy Keohane for the second, and doesn’t seem to be allowing his attention drift anywhere but on the task at hand in a green jersey.
A different shade of green is surely on his way in the immediate future, but with once game left of his services, the Rebel Army desperately need the Kilkenny native to force the issue up front on Thursday evening, and for his side to score at least once. Twice, particularly a late second, would be more than welcome.
Eleven years ago to the week, Dan Murray’s towering header with 14 minutes remaining saw Damien Richardson’s side secure a 1-1 draw with Apollon Limassol and go through 2-1 on aggregate, following Billy Woods’ only strike in the home leg.
Of course this current lot haven’t the luxury of a home win to take to the contested island, but all the same will know that if they can get an early leveller, the pressure will be on the shoulders of Larnaca in front of their home support, expecting progression from their first outing of the new season.
Last week it seemed that the Rebel Army were luckless at Turner’s Cross, with a number of important decisions and unfortunate deflections going against John Caulfield’s side, who improved dramatically in the second-half, particularly in the final stages of the game.
Much is being made of the heat for the Cork City players, but on that day in 2006 at the GSP Stadium a blazingly hot day was long forgotten as a cool ‘sea breeze’ rippled across the stadium located directly in the middle of the island. The AEK Arena meanwhile is just off the coastline, so if there’s any ground to benefit from a sea breeze it will be that.
It was clear that AEK were still in pre-season as they visibly tired in the final quarter, and while the heat will be something Caulfield’s side aren’t as used to – mind you their last two league games have been played in blistering heat on Sunday afternoons – it will still be tough on the Cypriot side, only four weeks back into their pre-season.
The current City side can take a lot of heart from that day, with the Leesiders also riding their luck; Michael Devine pulling off a number of top-class saves, sparing his side’s blushes after gilt-edge chances spurned by Roy O’Donovan and Denis Behan. That Limassol side, too, was well organised and looked to be a class above the Rebel Army in the opening quarter, but like last week the side clawed their way back into it.
Maguire will be instrumental in that. He’s spoken much in the last few weeks about how much he owes to Cork City and manager Caulfield, Thursday will be his final chance to pay their faith back.