Tom O'Connor: This is not just a cup final

Fri, Nov 03 2017

A Cork City fan takes in the scene during the sides' most recent battle at Turner's Cross in September. Credit: Michael P Ryan (ETPhotos)

This is not just a cup final. This is not about a goalkeeper professing his dislike for a rival club or that club’s manager expressing his dissatisfaction with such an outburst. This is not about the deposed league champions taking on their perennial bridesmaids.


This is a story of how faith, loyalty and a sense of community brought two clubs from staring into the abyss of potential non-existence to become one of the greatest rivalries in modern League of Ireland football.


2012 saw a supporter-led, FORAS-backed Cork City spend their first season back in the Premier Division fafter the previous regime had been denied a licence, forcing the new entity to re-enter the league in the second tier.


Their Lilywhite counterparts endured financial hardship of their own with fans actively involved in the payment of wages, before the club was taken over by a local company. The community was now the beating heart at both Turner’s Cross and Oriel Park.


After the consolidation stage came the risk. Dundalk moved first when, in 2012, they eventually snared Stephen Kenny. The Tallaght native had built himself a formidable reputation by creating successful teams from modest beginnings at both Longford Town and Derry City, while also managing a supremely talented Bohemians side to league success.


However, his tenure at Shamrock Rovers had ended with surprising abruptness, similar to his Scottish sojourn post Derry City Part One. Undoubtedly, there was a talented manager there – multiple cup successes, two league titles (one First Division, one Premier Division) – but how scarred was the former Tallaght Town manager after his Rovers experience?


A narrow second place in the league in the 2013 season proved that the hunger still burned.


Next move the Leesiders, as Cork City they dispensed with their First Division title winning-manager, the experienced Tommy Dunne, and appointed their record goalscorer and terrace legend John Caulfield.


The New York-born high-ranking Diageo employee had managed Munster League side Avondale United to success at junior level for a number of years but had never managed at a League of Ireland club.


He would be a popular appointment to the position and had a winning pedigree at amateur level, but could he step up as manager? The Cork City board, with chairperson Mick Ring, whose father had been involved in the original establishment of Cork City almost thirty years earlier, rolled the dice.


In 2014, Dundalk, buoyed by their runner-up position to St Patrick’s Athletic the previous season, and Cork City, energised by having a Cross cult hero in their dugout, fought tooth and nail for the title in one of the most thrilling league races seen in modern times. The lead switched hands a number of times throughout the course of thirty two games with the final outcome being decided by a winner takes all season finale at Oriel Park.


Fairytale stories were being prepared by sports journalists all over the country. Could Stephen O’Donnell return from a six month injury absence to lead his current employers to victory over one of his previous clubs? Or would the hero be Mark O’Sullivan, the striker who had only joined the club with his former amateur manager and took the league by goalscoring storm?


In the end the Lilywhites took the three points to land their first title since the 2008 First Division, and their first Premier Division title since 1995, and sparked massive celebrations in the border town. Meanwhile, the Cork players returned south with revenge on their mind.


2015 saw Dundalk dominate the league with a record goals tally and losing only once across the entire league. However, once more it was the Leesiders who provided the sternest of opposition and ended up second in the league.


The season didn’t end there though and their rivalry took a greater significance as both teams met in the 2015 FAI Cup Final. The match itself was a titanic contest with both sides cancelling each other out, until – seconds before two hours would have passed without a goal – a moment of magic from former Cork City winger Daryl Horgan saw him pull the ball back for Richie Towell to net both the ball and the cup for Dundalk.


The 2016 season saw both sides reinforce their attacking firepower. Former Dundalk striker Seánie Maguire landed at Turner’s Cross while creative duo Patrick McEleney and Robbie Benson pitched their tents at Oriel Park.


Both sides traded early blows in the league and produced some excellent performances in Europe. Cork City progressed to the Third Qualifying Round of the Europa League before narrowly falling to Belgian kingpins Genk, while Dundalk qualified for the group stages of the same competition and made League of Ireland history.


The league was a tighter affair than the previous season but Dundalk prevailed with a 2-1 victory over Bohemians in their 31st league game of the season. Once again though, the top two met in the FAI Cup Final.


Similar to 2016, the game was a cagey, full blooded affair which drifted towards penalties until a winner was eventually found- this time ex Lilywhite Maguire was the hero as he rolled an effort into the corner of the net in the 120th minute to see silverware travel south for the second time (after the Presidents Cup in February) that year.


This year, Cork City took the league by storm in the opening 21 games, racking up a record number of points as Dundalk played the role of the supporting cast for the first time in their ongoing duet.


Seánie Maguire hammered in 20 league goals and dominated defenders before leaving these shores for a place at Preston North End alongside his Cork City team mate Kevin O’Connor and former Lilywhites Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle, who joined the Deepdale outfit at the end of the previous season.


Since the departure of Maguire and O’Connor, Cork City have had to alter their playing style to as well as deal with the pressure of pace setters. On the other hand, Dundalk have picked up an impressive number of wins since the mid season break. An extra-time Leinster Senior Cup defeat to Shelbourne is their only cup defeat since the season began.


The roles have completely reversed since last season. Now it’s Dundalk who arrive at the Aviva with their eyes set on silverware as a springboard to league success next season.

On the field, Dundalk are lauded as free flowing and dynamic, Cork functional and dour to watch. Pundits fawn over the Lilywhites’ passing and despair at the paucity of fluency in Cork’s attacking play, especially since the departure of their striking sensation.


However, as is often the case, the truth lies between the two extremes. Often Dundalk can be accused of over playing the ball while the Rebels have an excellent midfielder in Gearóid Morrissey who has orchestrated many coherent City attacks.


The effective and versatile Karl Sheppard is another cog in the current wheel of controversy – the Portmarnock attacker is expected to trade Leeside for Louth in the coming weeks.


Contrasting managerial appointments, league title rivals over the past four years, an apparently total contrast of playing styles and controversial signings between the clubs are four possible reasons to raise passions.


However the two clubs are, at their heart, inherently similar: each central to their community, run by supporters, unwaveringly loyal to their managers and believe that their club is undoubtedly superior.


The FAI Cup final will prove one set of fans right, not social media mudslinging. This Cup final is more than this and deserves to be treated as such.