'I can't put into words how thankful I am that I play for this club'

Alan Bennett reflects on Cork City’s Europa League exit.

IT WAS A night that ended in disappointment, but for Cork City defender Alan Bennett, the occasion was one he was grateful to have been a part of nevertheless.

City were eliminated from the Europa League by KRC Genk after a 2-1 defeat — 3-1 on aggregate — in front of a sold-out crowd of 6,745 at Turner’s Cross in the second leg of their third-round qualifier last night.

Cork City supporters Cathal Noonan / INPHO The view from the Shed End at Turner's Cross for Cork City's game against Genk. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Bennett, representing City in Europe for the 26th time — more than any other player in the club’s history — headed home a consolation goal in the 63rd minute after Thomas Buffel and Sebastien Dewaest had put the Belgian side in the ascendancy in the first half.

The Leesiders will now turn their attention back to domestic matters following the conclusion of a European campaign which yielded triumphs over Linfield and BK Hacken in July.

“It was a disappointing first half,” said Bennett after their defeat to a team that finished fourth in Belgium last season. “You can’t afford to do that at this level. You’ll just get punished, and we were. It’s a month since we started and it’s a steep learning curve. A lot of lessons will be learned tonight, but also over the six games, a lot of positives.

“A lot of lads had some really good campaigns and they should be proud of themselves. What we created tonight for this club and this city is something we should be really proud of. I’d like to thank each and every supporter for coming in because it was incredible tonight.”

Bennett savoured the occasion more than most, perhaps. He returned home to Cork last season after seven years away in England, and having not yet revealed if he’ll continue to play beyond 2016, it could potentially have been the 34-year-old defender’s last game on the European stage for his hometown club.

He said: “Coming off the pitch at the end, the fans were still supporting us. It’s incredible. Honestly, I can’t put into words how thankful I am that I play for this club and we have fans like we have. At most other clubs you probably would have got booed off. They’re there and they’re clapping you off. It’s phenomenal.”

Alan Bennett scores a goal Cathal Noonan / INPHO Alan Bennett heads home for Cork City against Genk. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Bennett believes that City’s young team may have been affected by nerves in such a big game: “We weren’t ourselves. It’s such a massive learning curve for young lads. Playing in the League of Ireland week-in-week-out and probably their first time in the squad, then all of a sudden you’re rocketed into top-level football really.

“Don’t get me wrong, they [Genk] are an exceptional team and I think they’ll go really far in this competition, they’ve got some really good players, but hopefully our lads will take positives out of it.  That’s all you can do.”

City, who are six points behind leaders Dundalk but have a game in hand, will resume their quest to end an 11-year wait for a Premier Division title when they welcome Sligo Rovers to Turner’s Cross on Monday night.

“I honestly can’t wait for the game on Monday, just to get this game out of my system. I’m sure a lot of the lads feel the same. You’ve come off with some regrets and you just want to get them out of the way as quickly as possible,” Bennett said.

“We’ll do that because this group is mentally strong and we’ve got to prove that on Monday.”

Cork City’s European adventure comes to an end at a sold-out Turner’s Cross

As it happened: Cork City v KRC Genk, Europa League third qualifying round second leg

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