Republic of Ireland title-holders Cork City FC meet former European champions FK Crvena Zvezda tonight, and they are no strangers to the big occasion in UEFA competition themselves.
In September 1991, less than four months after the Belgrade side had lifted the European Champion Clubs' Cup, Cork were drawn in the UEFA Cup first round against FC Bayern München and in the home first leg at nearby Musgrave Park went ahead through Dave Barry 26 minutes in. A Stefan Effenberg goal salvaged a 1-1 draw for Bayern, and the game has entered legend due to a row between the goalscorers. Effenberg said the balding Barry "looks like my grandfather" and Barry's response was to claim that Effenberg "plays like my grandfather".
Bayern won their home leg 2-0, and in the subsequent years Cork have played Galatasaray SK, SK Slavia Praha and R. Standard de Liège. But the UEFA Champions League second qualifying round tie is the biggest in their history - the game, this time at Cork's own Turner's Cross, became a 5,000 sell-out within six hours. The Serbian side will be favourites to reach the last preliminary stage, but two seasons ago Croatian side HNK Hajduk Split assumed they would defeat Shelbourne FC at a similar stage and the Irish club won out that day.
"This is the biggest game in the history of the club," says Cork coach Damien Richardson. "We stepped up from the UEFA Intertoto Cup to the UEFA Cup, now we have to step up again to the UEFA Champions League. We have played some illustrious clubs before but then it was a case of damage limitation. Cork played Bayern, Galatasaray and Slavia Prague in the 1990s and we went out not believing we could beat them. We went to the away game hoping to keep the score down so we'd get a decent crowd at home where the club could make some money."
However, Ireland now plays a summer league season, with a beneficial effect for their clubs' European ambitions, and Cork are one of several sides to go professional. "We are full-time, the advent of summer football has aided the level of our performance quite astonishingly," Richardson said. "Every game is different but we are going out there believing we can win this game."
Cork will face Crvena Zvezda without three of their first-choice eleven. Midfield player Joe Gamble and full-back Danny Murphy are both suspended after being sent off after the final whistle of the second leg of Cork's first qualifying round success against FC Apollon Limassol. Playmaker George O'Callaghan also misses out as his public dispute with the club continues.
Crvena Zvezda include towering 2.02m-tall striker Nikola Žigić in a fully-fit squad, and a number of managers from the English Premiership will be in Cork to check out the Serbian international. "We're ready for the start of the new season," Crvena Zvezda coach Dusan Bajević told uefa.com. "I watched Cork's matches against Apollon. They were patient, and played the whole match at the same tempo as they waited for a mistake. We musn't allow them any chances."
Bajević will play new signings Ely Tadeu and Blagoy Georgiev as Crvena Zvezda look to reach the UEFA Champions League for the first time. About 350 supporters are expected to make the trip to help their side achieve that goal. "I'm delighted and can't wait to start," Georgiev said. "Our target is the group stage and I'm optimistic we can achieve that. We have respect for the Irish team, but I really believe we're the better side." The return in Belgrade is next Wednesday.
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