Each year the qualifying rounds of the Europa League serve up some unique and intriguing ties and a host of new found destinations for football fans across Europe. Destinations that have left fans scrambling for their atlas! Recent examples include St. Jonhstone’s visit to Yerevan in Armenia to play Alashkert, and Aberdeen’s visit to Tetovo in Macedonia to play FK Shkendija. Here, guest writer Paul Barry heads to Europe’s northern most capital city for Cork City’s Europa League 1st qualifying round second leg tie….
KR Reykjavik 2 v 1 Cork City (09.07.2015)
European matches are always a special occasion for League of Ireland fans. Though the early qualifiers are far removed from the heights of what the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich are accustomed to, they’re what we know best. They provide a rarity of welcoming foreign footballing cultures and the chance of trips abroad. Following a seven year gap, one of Ireland’s most successful clubs in Europe, Cork City, qualified for the Europa League having finished runners-up domestically.
Due to the League of Ireland running from March to October, we knew we’d have a European odyssey to look forward to about nine months prior to the actual match. In spite of this, research on potential destinations was difficult due to the sheer number of teams that start in the first round. We had to wait for the day of the draw. Cork City were pulled out of the hat to play KR Reykjavik from Iceland. Not the best, but not the worst. Despite being a regular European team, we avoided better teams and a potential trip to western Asia.
With the match kicking off on a Thursday, our stay was from Wednesday to Saturday. Our trip began Tuesday evening, to get to Dublin and onwards to Belfast for the early hours. With a long wait and some very tired heads, we eventually arrived in Keflavik and travelled onwards to Reykjavik. Following a 1-1 draw in the home leg, we were quietly confident of our chances. KR being the seeded team and scoring an away goal were the favourites, but we knew we had a chance.
The Wednesday was spent recovering from the long journey, getting to grips with the city and having a few drinks the night before. The pub that the Rebel Army chose as a base was packed and in full voice a good 24 hours before kick-off. The live music put in place was having trouble trying to rival a packed pub of boisterous fans for sound. Thankfully, many a song happened to be part of our own repertoire, so we often complimented instead of challenged him.
Before it got too late, we decided to call it a night. Or a day, rather. Iceland doesn’t get much darkness in the high summer. As we walked back in the early hours, the sun was hovering just below the horizon, ready to pop back up. Being relatively northerly, as well as westerly for its time zone, we’re used to long summer days in Ireland. But this was something else. Seeing the remnants of sunlight and brightness at one or two in the morning was a sight to behold.
The following morning was matchday. We got up fairly early and decided to do some walking along the pier and through the city to kill some time. Though it was about 11am and the sun was high in the sky, it wasn’t a whole lot brighter than it had been nine or ten hours previously. We had some lunch and then headed for the square. There weren’t many City fans around at first – just a few small groups walking about. A few heads still sore from the night before, no doubt. Some had set up in the pub, before the bulk of the travelling support made its way to the square. There we spent the next few hours, hanging up flags and singing songs.
Before long, it was time for the match. We headed for the stadium, situated fairly close to the city centre. Following a short 15 minute walk, with plenty of singing and in high spirits, we arrived. Tickets were quite reasonable. 1,500 ISK, which is about €10-€11 or £7.50. A decent price for a European fixture. We headed for the small away section, which we largely filled. Not far off a hundred travelled. That would equate to an ordinary away crowd that we’d bring around Ireland and probably higher than the average away crowd that would travel to Turner’s Cross. It’s certainly not bad for a 3,000km round trip. We were in full voice, not to be stopped once we started.
It wasn’t long until the teams were lining out and kicking off. With the concession of the away goal, we needed to score. And we got off to a flier. Within the quarter hour, Mark O’Sullivan deftly chipped the keeper to put us 1-0 up on the night, 2-1 on aggregate and cancelled out the away goal. The travelling support went mental. We did what we needed to do in cancelling out their goal in Ireland and we took an early lead. We didn’t do much more for the first 45, content to sit on the one goal margin, with KR having the majority of the possession and chances. Things got better for us just before the half, though, when the Icelandic side were reduced to ten. Their centre back was sent marching for a second bookable offence. We deliriously waved him off. I’m usually the nervous type at football matches – I don’t relax until my team are a few goals clear. But I was very confident at half time. A goal up, a precious away goal and a man up. All we had to do in the second half was pass the ball, use the extra man and attack them. A second goal would’ve had us clear. Even conceding one in the process would’ve given us a two goal cushion with the extra away goal. The team had other ideas, however.
The second half started worse than the first half went. We sat back and allowed KR possession and space. It was them who looked to have the man advantage, as they controlled the midfield. They had plenty of chances, including one off the crossbar. Things weren’t going well, we were hanging on, but surely with the man advantage, we could weather the storm and hold on? We didn’t. With a quarter of an hour left, a header was parried straight to the home side, who easily finished, to the dismay of the away end. We hung on for the final 15 minutes, with KR again looking the more dangerous side. The ref blew his whistle and it went to extra time. City were definitely the luckier of the two sides and it gave us a chance to regroup and try and go for the second away goal.
Again, the side with ten men dominated in extra time, however. Following a few chances, including another shot off the bar, a KR player picked up the ball, beat two City defenders and rounded the keeper to finish into an empty net. We were a quarter of an hour away from being in the next round, now we were twenty minutes away from being knocked out. What KR did so fantastically when behind, we failed miserably. We couldn’t keep the ball, we couldn’t pass it around quickly and we couldn’t create chances. Despite protecting a narrow lead and being a man down, the Icelanders looked the more dangerous. The referee eventually blew his whistle, as City bowed out with a whimper. A goal ahead early on and man up for 75 minutes and we fucked it up.
We continued to support the lads after the final whistle. It was a frustrating performance, but it was clear that the loss hurt the players as much as the fans. In retrospect, perhaps the inexperience at this level among some of the players and the manager was a big factor in the result. KR, though not exactly a household name, consistently qualify year after year. You’re bound to pick up a few tricks along the way. Hopefully we could learn from this match next time we’re in Europe, preferably without another seven year interval.
We did our best to pick ourselves up and enjoy the rest of the holiday, though we were in sombre mood. The following day, we travelled to the nearby national stadium, Laugardalsvöllur, where we were allowed to freely walk around the stands, VIP and press area. Perhaps we would’ve enjoyed the experience a bit more had we visited before the match. We managed to take in another game at the nearby town of Garðabær, between champions Stjarnan and Valur, whom City previously faced in the Intertoto Cup. It was an entertaining match and the home fans, for their relatively small numbers, made plenty of noise that would rival any Irish team. That evening marked the end of our trip, as we flew out of Keflavik back to Ireland the following morning.
Our European odyssey was over all too prematurely. It was back to domestic action, to ensure that we’ll have more European memories to look forward to in 2016. More cheerful memories than this season’s campaign, we hope.
You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulBarryLaw and visit his website ‘Law of Sport’ by clicking here
Cork City’s players walk out to an impressive backdrop created by the Rebel Army for their home tie against KR Reykjavik…