IT was 25 years ago this month, Cork City kicked off their Intertoto Cup campaign against Standard Liège at Turner’s Cross.
This was the fourth UEFA club competition that existed during the 1990s and it began with a round-robin group stage consisting of five teams.
City were drawn into Group 4 alongside the Belgians, Maccabi Petah Tikva FC of Israel, FC Köln of Germany, and Aarau of Switzerland.
The Rebel Army entered the competition with a good European record after their previous performances against Bayern Munich and Galatasaray.
In fact, during the 1990s, City were the only Irish team to progress in the Champions League.
Their European experience was needed against a Standard Liège team who had lost the 1996 Intertoto Cup final.
The team that played in Turner’s Cross had a mix of young talent and seasoned professionals. The experience of Phil Harrington, John Caulfield, and Dave Hill was complemented on the day by a young trio of Ollie Cahill, Brian Barry-Murphy, and Colin O’Brien. They all worked seamlessly together to grind out a 0-0 draw.
One week after the stalemate in Turner’s Cross, City swapped the grey skies for the sweltering heat of Israel.
In true Cork fashion, a small group of supporters travelled to the Middle East for the game in the Kiryat Eliezer Stadium in Hafia.
Among the fans included a small group of UN Peacekeepers who travelled over from Lebanon in an armoured car.
One of the soldiers, Sergeant Gary Moloney, had lost his leg in a mine explosion. He was looked after by the City fans and had the best seat in the stadium for the game.
After a goalless first half, City should have had a penalty when John Caulfield was fouled inside the area. The Turkish referee waved this on but he did give City an in-swinging free-kick after Brian Barry-Murphy was fouled. Kevin Flanagan took this and the ball looped in and went narrowly wide.
City nearly took the lead in the dying seconds of the game after a cross from Ollie Cahill found Noel Hartigan. With just the keeper to beat, he smacked the ball off the post.
When the referee blew for the full-time whistle, the entire squad went over to shake Sergeant Moloney’s hand.
“Today was brilliant,” the soldier told RTÉ after the game.
“Today is my first day out since I got to Haifa and today was my first day out since the accident. To come to a match, get a jersey, be the only one in the group who isn’t a Cork-man, listen to Cork accents in the middle of a pitch in Israel, in the middle of this, is just the business. It is brilliant,” he added.
City returned to Turner’s Cross on July 12 and they welcomed Germany heavy weights Köln. The Bundesliga side travelled to Cork with an impressive European history that included narrowly losing the 1986 UEFA Cup final to Real Madrid.
That loss was the start of a golden period for Köln as they went on to secure two second-place Bundesliga finishes, in 1988–89 and 1989–90, and they lost the DFB-Pokal final in 1991.
Their 1996 Intertoto Cup campaign saw an 8-0 hammering of Tottenham Hotspur and reached the last 16.
Football fans in Cork were well aware of Köln’s size going into the game as 4,000 people turned up to Turner’s Cross for the match. The German squad had seven full internationals including Austrian Toni Polster who won the European Golden Shoe in the 1986-87 season.
City were unfazed by all of this experience and they should have scored early in the first half when Ollie Cahill put a low ball into the box for John Caulfield. It fell perfectly to the striker but his touch let him down and he put the chance wide.
Dorinel Munteanu responded for Köln by knocking in a corner. City thought they equalised straight away after John Caulfield turned in a Dave Hill free-kick, but the referee spotted a foul in the box and a free-out was given.
A powerful strike from Toni Polster crept in at the start of the second half and this secured the three points for the German side.
City’s next game was against FC Aarau in Switzerland and only 600 people turned up for this dead rubber tie at the Stadion Brügglifeld.
It finished goalless and City finished in fourth place in the group.
Their European adventure ended up setting a new precedent for an Irish side on the continent as they got three creditible draws in the competition.
City’s European adventure was captured by legendary filmmaker John Creedon in a documentary. He travelled to all four games with the squad, recording every move the Rebel Army made.
City’s European adventure also meant that the squad was at peak fitness for the start of the League of Ireland season. This showed at the end of the year, as the squad went on to win the FAI Cup for the very first time. City also lifted the Munster Senior Cup to complete the second cup double in the club’s history.