FOR TWO MEMBERS of the Cork City defence who started in this week’s Champions League clash with Legia Warsaw, 1998 was a significant year.
Damien Delaney may have been making his first competitive appearance for City since his recent move from Crystal Palace, but it wasn’t his debut for the club.
That came 20 years ago for the Cork-born centre-back, who had Conor McCarthy to his immediate right in the meeting with the Polish champions at Turner’s Cross on Tuesday.
McCarthy, who played just over an hour at right-back before picking up an injury, was born in April ’98 — just a couple of months before Delaney’s association with the club began.
As he prepares for his 37th birthday next Friday, there’s no escaping the fact that Delaney is entering the twilight of his career. However, age was certainly no impediment to his contribution to Cork City’s first outing in the Champions League in 12 years.
The elder statesman in a back-four which was otherwise occupied by players aged 20, 21 and 23, Delaney utilised his calibre and experience at Premier League and senior international level to marshall a defence which was on course to keep a clean sheet until Legia gained the upper hand with a spectacular long-range strike late in the game.
After playing all 90 minutes — his first full competitive game since an FA Cup clash with Brighton in January — Delaney insisted that he felt good physically. The Ireland international had returned to action for City in a friendly against Portsmouth eight days earlier.
“Probably the start of the game [against Legia] was the worst part for me!” he laughed. “Playing competitive football again after being off for the summer, I’ve said before that you can train on your own as much as you want and play friendlies like I did against Portsmouth, but the real deal is different. Competitive football is different.
“In the first five or ten minutes I was a little bit shaky and just trying to find my feet, but I felt more confident as the game went on.”
The lure of representing his hometown club in the Champions League was a factor in Delaney’s decision to sign an 18-month-deal with John Caulfield’s side. He was proud to do so on Tuesday, but the result put a dampener on the occasion.
“I was never one that was just happy playing in games,” he said. “I wanted to win. When we got in the positions we got in, I just felt we should have capitalised a little bit more. It was unfortunate.
“For me, it wasn’t just about ticking a box to say: ‘I’ve played in the Champions League’. I want to win in the Champions League. That will most certainly be my attitude when we go out there.”
From a Cork point of view, there was a sense of missed opportunity about the first leg of their first round qualifier against a Legia Warsaw side who travelled to Ireland without a host of key players, some of whom are eligible to feature in the return leg.
John Caulfield admitted afterwards that his side created more chances than he expected. The best of them fell to Barry McNamee and Graham Cummins, but the game remained scoreless until the 79th minute when Michal Kucharczyk gave Legia an away goal which puts them in the driving seat ahead of City’s visit to the Polish Army Stadium on Tuesday [8pm].
The SSE Airtricity League Premier Division champions will need to score away to Legia Warsaw — something Dundalk and St Patrick’s Athletic have both managed in recent years — if they’re to keep alive their hopes of facing Spartak Trnava (Slovakia) or HŠK Zrinjski Mostar (Bosnia & Herzegovina) in the second qualifying round. Delaney believes they’re capable.
“Without question,” he said. “Half the battle for us is convincing ourselves that we’re a good team. I said to the players before the [first leg] that, as far as I was concerned, it was a level playing field – somebody decided that Legia Warsaw come into the Champions League at this stage and somebody decided that Cork City come in at this stage.
“The lads didn’t get lucky or anything like that. They deserve to be there for what they did last year. I thought we came out of the blocks very well and did everything that was expected of us, except put the ball in the net, and obviously they scored a fantastic goal.”
He added: “They’re a good team, there’s no disputing that. They’re well organised, they get some nice passing moves going, they play out from the back — but I feel they’re vulnerable. We proved that in the first half. When we press them high up the pitch we can win it back. Maybe that’s something we can look to do more out in Poland.
“We deserve to be at this level. I hope the lads feel very, very happy and confident with the showing they put up. Going out there, I’m hoping we give as good a showing as we gave here and we’ll be looking to win that game.”
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