Bennett ready to experience Europe with Cork City once again

15th November 2023

When Cork City take to the pitch on Tuesday night to face Legia Warsaw in the Champions League, it will be an entirely new experience for almost every player in the squad. It’s been thirteen long years since the Leesiders last featured at this level.

When Cork City take to the pitch on Tuesday night to face Legia Warsaw in the Champions League, it will be an entirely new experience for almost every player in the squad.

It’s been thirteen long years since the Leesiders last featured at this level. With time moving on so to have many of those players that took on Apollon Limassol and Red Star Belgrade in the 2006/07 qualifying rounds.

With Mark McNulty failing to displace Michael Devine from the starting eleven, it leaves just one member of the current side who has represented City on Europe’s biggest stage.

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to it a lot, a lot. It’s really exciting now it has come around,” enthused Alan Bennett.

“It’s brilliant. It’s so unique. It’s just a huge opportunity for the league and for our club to be on this European stage and it’s just an incredible opportunity as a player.

“It’s different, it’s absolutely the way forward for our club in terms for everything.  From finance to playing, to promotion, everything. Champions League is the absolute golden goose so it’s just really exciting.”

Should he be selected, Tuesday’s match against the Polish champions will be Bennett’s 27th appearance in Europe in total, his fifth in the UEFA Champions League.

His debut came in 2004 in a memorable Intertoto Cup tie with Swedish giants Malmo at Turners Cross where City won the first leg 3-1 before they famously sealed their place in the next round with a 1-0 win in the away leg a week later.

Bennett helped the Leesiders to keep two clean sheets as they marched past Dutch side NEC Nijmegen in the next round before they were eventually knocked out at the quarter-final stage by French outfit Nantes.

But following that first taste of European football, the City number three wanted more.

As things continued to improve on the field, City began to progress on the continent as they participated in three rounds of the UEFA Cup in 2005 where they faced FK Ekranas and Djurgardens IF before losing out to Slavia Prague.

But a league title triumph later that year finally afforded the Rebel army a seat at the top table in 2006 and for Bennett, it brings up a lot of similarities between that class and the current crop.

“We actually three consecutive years of good European fixtures at that time,” adds Bennett.

“When the Champions League came around we were in a similar position to what we are in now. We are used to the European schedule and the games themselves.

“It’s a European fixture so I like to think we are evolving the same way. I know it is the Champions League and we were obviously in the Europa league so there’ll be differences.

“A lot of them will be making their debut in the Champions League but it’s still a European fixture so there is still that same thinking and same approach to it so for the lads that haven’t played in this competition they’re itching to make their debut in it.

“You’re aware that you have gone up a level and you’re playing in the Champions League so there’s that prestige to it.

“But how we approach it will be similar to what we’ve done over the last number of ties that John Caulfield has managed us in. It’s just an incredibly exciting time.”

The Rebel supporters will be hoping the similarities don’t end there as that return to the competition in 2005, twelve years since facing Cwmbran Town and Galatasaray in the 1993/94 UEFA Champions League, saw the club produce one of its biggest upsets against Apollon Limassol in the first qualifying round.

Billy Woods’ superb strike from the edge of the box saw Cork edge the first leg 1-0 at home before they would go on to complete the job with Dan Murray scoring a header in a famous 1-1 draw in the second leg in Cyprus.

“I remember Woodsie’s goal (vs Limassol) alright and we took a lead out there. The heat there was phenomenal, that’s something you don’t see in the videos so I remember that.

“We were in the black jerseys as well which caused a bit of madness as well we were like why are we wearing black jerseys in this heat but anyway.”

That set up a difficult second-round tie with Red Star Belgrade which unfortunately wouldn’t end as well as they were outclassed losing 4-0 on aggregate.

“The Red Star games then. I remember we had a Bosnia lad play Admir Softic. He used to play in midfield but obviously, we were heading to Belgrade in Serbia so that was quite intense.

“There was tension around that situation but outside of that the games with Belgrade were another level up, they had some excellent players.

“(Nikola) Zigic was up top so that was quite a challenge, he’s bigger than Peter Crouch I remember people saying.

“But as I said it was season after season after season you’re playing in Europe and that’s where I hope we are as a group now as well.

“That we have come from that season, that very first game against Reykjavik and we’ve moved and moved and moved along and have experienced these European situations and hopefully we can do something similar that would be amazing.”

Even though the 36-year-old has enjoyed many great nights playing for Cork in Europe, he admits the high point of his European career to date wasn’t any of those famous wins.

“The best memories are just the whole novelty of it and then the excitement around there and representing Cork on a European stage definitely like,” he enthused.

“To go to places and walk around the city people looking at you. You go into a shop then when you get a couple of hours off and its where you from? I’m from Cork. Oh are ye playing here? Yeah we’re playing Malmo and it’s just like ah ok. Being able to represent your city in Europe is a huge, huge honour.”

But the low point remains clear. After seven years of off the field issues, numerous owners, and courtroom battles, Cork City returned to European action in 2015 when they faced KR Reykjavik in the first qualifying round of the Europa League.

In the first leg at Turner’s Cross, Bennett would score the opening goal of the match before the Icelandic club would battle back to earn a 1-1 draw.

But it is the second leg that still rankles with the defender. City looked destined for the next round as they had a goal and a man advantage going into the half time break.

But it wouldn’t be enough as their experienced opponents battled back to force extra time and they would ultimately prevail when they grabbed the winner with 20 minutes to go.

“The worst feeling then would be Reykjavik that still stings a little bit in the sense that it was such a lost opportunity. When we were out there it just passed us by.

“They got a man sent off and we went a goal up out there but that in the end was a really frustrating night, that’s stings a little bit but a lot of lessons were learned from that so you have to take those every so often.“  

City did learn lessons from that defeat as they progressed to the third round of the tournament the following season but after passing through Linfield and BR Hacken, they succumbed to a talented KRC Genk side.

A 3-1 loss on aggregate was nothing to be ashamed of with City’s only goal coming from Bennett, which was enough to put him one goal clear of John Caulfield’s tally for the club in Europe.

“I’m going to have to mention that to him now,” he jokes although he's informed one more goal this season will put him third in the clubs all-time goal-scoring list in European Competitions.

“That would be nice (to go third). For a club that has been in Europe but is still a fledgling European team. My hope in my lifetime is that Cork City will become a big European team.

“I have 26 appearances so I would be hoping in about 20 years that 26 games would be the minimum in our squad.

“I want fellas in the squad to be racking up 100 plus games in Europe, 200 plus games in the SSE Airtricity League that for me is the unique selling point for our league absolutely.

“If a club from across Europe comes and looks at our players who’s 22, has played 26 games in Europe and over 100 games in the league yeah he’s not worth 150 grand or 250 grand this guy is worth a couple of million. That’s where we need to try and project ourselves and to push ourselves.”

An emphatic 6-2 aggregate win over Levadia Tallinn in 2017 afforded a number of current players the opportunity to increase their number of European outings, although that was later halted by AEK Larnaca in the next stage.

But whether experienced or not, it is unlikely many of John Caulfield’s playing staff would have faced a tougher test than what is to come on Tuesday night.

“I was away in Italy when the draw took place and the just Twitter lights up and all the rest and you start getting messages then so it’s a tough draw,” said Bennett.

“It’s probably one of the toughest draws we could have got considering what their track record is against the league of Ireland teams as well.

“They’ll be well aware about what sort of standard they’re heading into I suppose and what kind of challenges they’ll be facing and no doubt they probably watched the game against Dundalk last week and Shamrock Rovers Friday.

“So it’s a tough draw but these are the top clubs in Europe so you’re expecting a tough draw really.

“I do know they travel quite strong and obviously there is a Polish community here in Ireland so when a polish club comes here, same if you were living in Poland and an Irish team were coming you would go and watch it so that will be…… but we know Cork City fans will come out and I urge them to come out and get tickets as soon as possible”

A number of Cork City’s triumphs in Europe, including those aggregate wins over Malmo and Apollon Limassol,  have come when they were drawn to play at home in the first leg.

And Bennett knows if they are to have any chance of beating Legia Warsaw, who have won five of the last six league titles in Poland, they will need to get a result at the Cross.

“I think the way it has come out probably suits us the best you know. Hopefully, we can do something at our place land an early punch or something but we’ll see.

“I suppose it suits us better in the sense that they have to come here a week earlier as well so we’ll see but I would prefer it this way if I was given the option.

“All those things you have to try and tilt it in your favour especially for the first game anyway and see if you can get something and then hopefully go over there with something to play for.

“That’s the ideal scenario anyway, isn’t it? You get something at home and then you go out there and you switch the pressure back on them and try to get something.”

Despite having played in 56 games in European competitions in total, against 30 different clubs from 20 different countries, this will be the first time that Cork City Football Club faces Polish opposition.

But Poland won’t be a new destination for Bennett, who has previously visited the nation when they held the European Championships in 2012.

“I’ve been to the famous square in Poznan for the European championships in 2012 before Ireland played the first game against Croatia.

“I was at that game so it was great that was my only experience of Poland but I do have friends in Berlin who are talking about going to the game. We do have that community of Cork people across Europe that will look to it has been quite accessible which is quite positive for us anyway like.”

The Legia Warsaw faithful are renowned for the intimidating atmosphere that they create at their Polish Army Stadium.

Bennett has admitted he a stayed away from watching the YouTube clips of their fans as he relishes the prospect of feeling it for himself on the 17th of July.

“No, I haven’t watched clips of their fans. I think some of the lads have but I like to stay away from that sort of thing.

“I would imagine it would be similar to Belgrade and Nantes. They were quite intimidating as well in terms of atmosphere.

“From when you immediately arrive at the hotel, to training, to the ground on the night, to going out for the warm-up, to the actual game, I presume it will run along a similar pattern to those games in terms of their fans.

“But it’s brilliant it adds to it and I prefer it in one way because then it feels like a proper European tie, it’s great.”

Even if they don’t upset the odds once again, City now that they will at least have the consolation of knowing they will drop into the third round of the Europa League having received a bye.

But at the moment that’s far from Bennett’s mind. Having waited thirteen years to finally have another opportunity to represent his hometown in the Champions League, his thoughts are firmly set on being competitive in the Champions League. Starting Tuesday.

“I think its positive (the bye) you have to take those when they come along it will just make it more interesting I suppose but it’s not something we have spoken about, to be honest.

"One, until today (Saturday) Europe hasn’t been spoken about and two, the situation regarding what’s happened in relation to the bye hasn’t at all been spoken about because we’ve just been focussing on the task at hand.

“We haven’t had any conversations regarding if it's good or bad or what the permutations could be. You just start to wreck your own head if you start going down that road but you asked my opinion straight up I have to say it is probably a positive.

“But our aim is definitely to try and do something in Turner’s Cross Tuesday. We are obviously aware of the size of the task but I think if we can do something at Turner’s Cross, a draw a positive result just to be able to go there and be competitive and have a situation where we can force something.

“We do have a very good squad obviously. We’ve got Damien (Delaney) coming in, Achille (Campion) has come back in great shape, John Kavanagh has come back so there’s players in amongst the squad again who are creating huge competition for places in the squad never mind for places on the bench or places in the team.

“They’ve come in the last few weeks and they’ve really pumped up the team again. Within the two legs if we can take something positive out of Tuesday and go there and be competitive for the second leg that would be ideal.“