Europa Conference League heartbreak as Derry City lose out to Tobol in penalty shoot-out
Derry City 1 (0), FRC Tobol Kostanay 0 (1)
(1-1 on agg. Tobol win 6-5 on pens)
In five years time some scribe will sit down to write 100 Years of Derry City. August 17th, 2023 should have featured prominently but it probably won't after Derry Ruaidhri Higgins men were denied their place in history in the most cruel of fashions.
Having never gone beyond the third round in European competition before, Derry were the better team over two legs against FRC Tobol Kostanay; they created the better chances and played the better football but it mattered not as soon as Pavel Kireenko's penalty hit the back of the net to end a dramatic shoot-out. Derry had won the Tallaght Battle but lost the war.
With nothing to separate the team both sides missed once in the regulation five, Ben Doherty seeing his kick saved before Jovan Ilic missed the Kazakh's first opportunity to win it. On to penalty number seven and when Brian Maher bravely stepped up, he had to watch his opposite number Konovalov dive low to his right to turn his spot-kick away.
There would be no second reprieve as Kireenko shot home but when the dust settles and the heartbreak resides, it won't be the result that is remembered: it will be the monumental effort of each and very Derry player. That spirit will see this team bounce back and ensure a bright future.
Derry made only one change from the 11 that started in Kazakhstan, Jamie McGonigle preferred to Cian Kavanagh after his goalscoring cameo against Drogheda in Sunday's 3-0 Premier Division win.
Tobol made two personnel changes themselves, Jovan Ilic and Igor Ivanovic coming in, but it was a tactical switch that caught the early eye, captain and chief playmaker Serikzhan Muzhikov being detailed to follow Sadou Diallo when out of possession, an obvious learning following the Derry midfielder's impressive first leg display.
It was a ploy designed to stop Derry building phases of play but inside one minute the Candy Stripes had fashioned the first opportunity when Paul McMullan's back pot cross was headed over by McGonigle who probably should have hit the target.
Derry were enjoying the best of it as O'Reilly and McMullan both threatened to opened the visitors up. The key was that midfield battle and as soon as Patching and Diallo managed to find space they made it count on 12 minutes.
The pair combined around the centre circle before Patching's lovely weighted pass inside Tobol full-back Bagdat Kairov left Duffy in a foot race with centre-half Ivan Rogac and there was only ever one winner.
Duffy got to the ball first and Rogac's late arrival sent the winger tumbling, Slovak referee having no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Up stepped Patching, calmly holding his kick just long enough for Tobol keeper Ivan Konovalov to commit himself before nonchalantly rolling home his spot-kick low to the keeper's left and Derry had their dream start.
Higgins' men were managing the game well and a constant threat on the break each time Tobol ventured forward. Indeed it was lovely Patching control that released O'Reilly to drive forward and find McGonigle. The forward had time to get his head up and picked out Duffy in support, the winger's fierce drive flashing only inches past the far post.
It took until the 28th minute for Tobol to offer a real threat, right winger Igor Ivanovic getting the better of Ben Doherty and driving into the area but McJannet was alert enough to get a great block on his shot cum cross.
Both McGonigle and Patching had chances to increase the lead but Higgins will have been delighted with his side's first half display as they went into the break deservedly in front and level on aggregate.
The second half continued along similar lines to the first, Tobol en joying plenty of possession but Derry looking much more efficient with theirs as another McMullan break almost put Duffy in, the winger twice seeing efforts blocked inside the Tobol penalty area.
McGonigle then saw a snapshot covered after Konovalov had flapped at a Doherty corner but Tobol were beginning to press and the impressive Ivanovic was only inches wide his a 56th minute effort after great work from Deble on the right.
Derry biggest concern of those early stages was a needless challenge by IIlc on the airborne Maher which left the Derry keeper is obvious discomfort following an awkward landing. Maher was eventually able to continue but Patching wasn't as lucky minutes later following a heavy challenge, though the blow of his departure was softened considerably by the arrival of Patrick McEleney, making his 50th appearance in European competition.
And 'Fats' was soon making his presence felt as he created a huge chance for McMullan with 18 minutes left. O'Reilly's hopeful long ball left plenty to do but McEleney, under pressure, controlled it instantly and rolled a lovely pass into McMullan's run in off the wing. However the Scot's shot was too close to Konovalov who saved with his feet.
With tension mounting and extra-time almost inevitable, Derry had their chance to win to go through when substitute Brandon Kavanagh slid namesake Cian in behind the Tobol defence but the striker skewed his shot badly wide on we went into an additional 30 minutes.
The Kazakhs had probably the best chance of the first period when Deble got int between the City centre-halves and touched the ball around the advancing Maher only to see McJannet get in behind and clear. Seconds later Ronan Boyce produced even getter defending, coming in behind Connolly to clear as Deble looked certain to head home.
With exhausted players dropping like flies in the second period and Connolly forced to play as a striker due to injury, it was on to penalties...... and heartbreak!