Dundalk midfielder Richie Towell recently reflected on his side’s narrow elimination from last season’s Europa League, when the concession of a second goal at home to Hadjuk Split ultimately proved the difference between the two sides.
“We were probably a bit naïve when we played against Hadjuk at home,” Towell said. “We knew it was going to be a lot more difficult away from home with their crowd behind them, so when we went 1-0 down we really went for it.
“Obviously hindsight is a great thing, and if we hadn’t done that we would have went through. [This time] we just need to stay in the tie, and if we stay in the tie then bring it back to Oriel, we have a great chance.”
Towell’s attitude is illuminating for two reasons. First, as the player who frequently controls the tempo and thrust of Stephen Kenny’s side, a large amount of responsibility falls on his head, and the urge for caution is as much a reminder to himself as his team mates.
Secondly, and more importantly, it reveals the degree of confidence and self-assurance that now surrounds Ireland’s top team: they backed themselves to outplay their stronger and better-resourced opponents, and even now it was tactics, rather than the opposition, that decided the outcome.
The contrast was apparent with the meek fashion in which Cork City exited the Europa League at the first qualifying hurdle. Exhausted and devoid of ideas long before they finally fell behind in extra time, despite having a man advantage since before half time, it was startling just how little control the Leesiders were able to exert against depleted and demoralised opposition.
It had begun so promisingly when Mark O’Sullivan – a real success story who John Caulfield had brought with him when he stepped up to the City job from UCC – used speed, skill and strength to create a solo opportunity and give Cork the lead. It may have come by way of a fortuitous deflection, but O’Sullivan’s determination to make the chance had forced fate.
The turning point came just before half time when KR defender Skuli Jon Fridgeirsson was dismissed for the harshest of second yellow cards as O’Sullivan made the most of what appeared to be, at worst, an accidental clash of legs. The home side were grateful for the opportunity to stem the flow and regroup during the break.
Time after time, the 10 men pulled the visitors from wing to wing, forcing them deeper into their own half and wearing them down through sheer physical exertion, to the point where anybody tuning in halfway through would have needed an eagle eye to spot that KR were the team a man short.
So confident were the Icelanders that coach Bjarni Gudjonsson played much of the second half with just two defenders. O’Sullivan, game runner though he was, could only do so much by himself up front as Karl Sheppard and Ross Gaynor were pulled back deep to aid with the defensive effort, while international midfield partnership of Liam Miller and Colin Healy showed neither the ability nor the willingness to hold onto possession.
Caulfield had made the baffling decision to omit top scorer Billy Dennehy from the travelling part after he was involved in an on-field altercation with O’Sullivan following the home league. Caulfield’s public comments suggested Dennehy was the subject of interest from other clubs, whereas the winger stated his desire to remain at Cork City.
Amid criticism of Cork’s physical and predictable style, Dennehy has been the team’s primary creative outlet with nine league goals and 10+ assists in the league this season, as well as the cross that led to Alan Bennett’s goal in the first leg. While his goal stats are padded out with penalties, that itself demonstrates a willingness to take responsibility absent the team in Reykjavik.
What’s most baffling about his omission, however, is the fact the side appears to be specifically set up around his creative spark, and didn’t seem to change at all without him. Ross Gaynor moved up from full back to replace him on the right wing and, while arguably City’s best performer, was being asked to perform well beyond his competence as an inverted winger.
Neither Gaynor nor Sheppard on the other side was comfortable taking the ball out wide, meaning Cork’s only consistent source of width was the full backs: 20-year-old midfielder Kevin O’Connor and centre-half John Dunleavy, who returned only last week from a serious long-term knee injury.
When KR were reduced to 10 men, the obvious thing to do would have been to employ width to stretch them, however with no natural winger or full back in position, they narrowed the pitch and made it far easier for the more dynamic home side to use the vast expanse on each side of the field to control the ball.
The best results in Europe for Irish teams in recent years – Shamrock Rovers in Belgrade, Dundalk in Split, St Pats in Warsaw – have had one common feature. On each occasion, the away side was able to identify, at some point, that the opposition was there for the taking, and was able not only to spot the weakness but to completely exploit it (Pats’ late concession notwithstanding).
That City failed the same test would not ordinarily be a cause for alarm – any positive result in Europe is difficult to attain and well-earned – but the fact that at no stage did they seem to even contemplate amending their style to press home the advantage being a man and a goal up should have provided is deeply worrying.
That it could all have worked out differently had the coach put the best 11 available players on the pitch suggests is reason enough for concern but the greater problem seems to be that, like repatriated heroes Miller, Healy and John O’Flynn, the football Cork play appears a decade out of date.