The 2013 season concludes on Sunday afternoon when Drogheda United face Sligo Rovers in the FAI Ford Cup final at the Aviva Stadium, kick off 3.30pm. The domestic calendar’s showpiece event will be staged in Dublin 4 for the fourth consecutive year and sees two sides with recent cup pedigree go head-to-head for the blue riband trophy.
After finishing runners-up in the Airtricity League twelve months ago, it’s been a disappointing league campaign for Mick Cooke’s side this time around and the Boynesiders head into Sunday’s final as underdogs but will be determined to add a silver lining to an otherwise underwhelming season.
The build-up to the game has been slightly overshadowed by the now irreparable dispute between the club’s hierarchy and Cooke, with the cup final likely to be his last in charge. The 62-year-old is United’s second most successful manager and despite leading Drogheda to three cup finals in 2013 alone, the board have decided to end his tenure.
Drogheda have suffered heartache at the final hurdle twice already this year and will be hell-bent on adding just their second FAI Cup to the trophy cabinet at Hunky Dory Park. They last tasted success in this competition eight years ago when Gavin Whelan and Declan ‘Fabio’ O’Brien scored to defeat Cork City 2-0 at the old Lansdowne Road.
Their journey to the Aviva Stadium for a fourth FAI Cup Final appearance began back in May with a 3-0 victory over Bohemians at Dalymount Park before a third round triumph over First Division outfit Longford Town which set-up a quarter-final day with another second tier side. United needed a replay to overcome Finn Harps before beating arch-rivals Dundalk in a controversial semi-final clash at Hunky Dorys Park.
Mick Cooke has a full squad to choose from but has plenty of selection dilemmas after giving nineteen players the chance to stake their claim for a starting berth in the final three league games.
“If you saw my team selections, everyone got ample game time, so it makes my job hard for next Sunday,” he said.
“I thought a couple of lads who came in gave great performances. And we said when we felt we couldn't reach the top four that I would start giving the players who have been loyal to me for the last two years plenty of game time. We're going to have a great week's preparation and look forward to the Aviva on Sunday.”
The former Irish women’s boss admits Sligo are firm favourites to lift the silverware but insists his charges will relish the tag. Captain and leading goalscorer Declan O’Brien has fond memories of the season’s finale and is hoping to put the disappointment of defeat in the EA Sports and Setanta Cups behind them.
“It’s been great to reach three cup finals but we certainly don’t want to come home with a silver medal again. It’s a sickening feeling to finish runners-up, so we will have only one aim on the day, to win the Cup and bring it back to Drogheda. We know we will have to play really well on the day and if we do, we have a fantastic chance of beating Sligo. We have great belief in ourselves and we have a lot of quality in the squad,” the striker told the club’s website.
While the future of his counterpart, Mick Cooke, has dominated much of the pre-match talk in County Louth, the position of Sligo boss Ian Baraclough has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks as his side prepare for their third trip to the Aviva Stadium in four years.
The former Scunthorpe tactician guided the Bit O’Red to their first league title in 35 years last season and has been heavily linked with a return to England with a number of vacant positions available. However, Baraclough insists its mere media speculation and he’s fully focused on the task in hand as Rovers aim to lift their fifth FAI Cup and third in four years.
The renovated Dublin 4 venue has been a happy hunting ground for Sligo as they’ve come away victorious on their previous two visits, beating Shamrock Rovers and then Shelbourne on penalties in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
Indeed, Rovers are unsurprising favourites given their experience of the big stage and the fact they finished the league campaign in strong fashion - they have lost just one of their last twelve games in all competitions.
The Bit O’Red have been forced to overcome some stiff challenges on their way to the final with holders Derry City and Premier Division counterparts Cork City and Shamrock Rovers left in their wake after a potential banana skin tie against Waterford United in the second round was safely negotiated.
Sligo met Sunday’s opposition in the Airtricity League just a couple of weeks ago at the Showgrounds. The hosts prevailed 3-1 but both managers kept their cards close to their chest in terms of team selection giving little away ahead of the cup final.
While twenty-eight points and five places separated the pair in the final league standings, there is little to choose between Sligo and Drogheda. The last six encounters in all competitions have produced two victories apiece while both sides have found the net on eight times.
Sligo assistant manager, Gary Stevens, is anticipating a nail-biting afternoon on front of a partisan atmosphere. “We’ve had some good tussles with Drogheda this season, they have some good players and they are very hard working. I anticipate a really close game in the final. Of course it’s not about coming second-it’s all about winning on the day,” The former England defender explained.
With no new injury concerns ahead of the final, Baraclough has a strong panel to choose from and one player who is determined to be involved is striker Danny North. The English-born frontman has scored four times this season after recovering from a cruciate ligament injury and is hoping to add a FAI Cup winners medal to his collection.
“It’s my first time to play (if selected) in an FAI Cup final after losing two semi-finals with Pat’s. Drogheda have been a bit of a bogey side for us this season so we are not taking anything for granted! It’s a once-off game and anything can happen.”
Kick-off is at 3.30pm with the Women’s Cup Final between Castlebar Celtic and Raheny United preceding the men’s game at 12.30pm.
Referee: Paul Tuite.
This will be Sligo’s eleventh appearance in the FAI Cup Final and fourth in five years.
Only three of the finals played since 1990 have been decided by more than one goal.
Just two of the last seven finals have been decided in ninety minutes with penalties required in three out of the last five.
The winners of the competition will earn a place in the first qualifying round of the 2014-15 UEFA Europa League.
The FAI Cup is Ireland’s oldest football competition with the 2013 edition being its 90th year.
Drogeda United 5/1; Draw 13/5; Sligo Rovers 4/7.
Drogheda United Injury News: None.
Drogheda United Suspension News: None.
Sligo Rovers Injury News: Joseph Ndo (slight doubt)
Sligo Rovers Cup Tied: David McMillan
Sligo Rovers Suspension News: None.