The Aviva Stadium hosts the climax of what has been another memorable domestic campaign on Sunday afternoon.
The two undisputed best teams in the land, Cork City and Dundalk, face each other for the fourth year running in the showpiece that is the Irish Daily Mail FAI Cup final (kick-off 3.40pm).
It’s a rivalry between two contrasting, yet effective styles of football. John Caulfield, the pragmatist, and idealist Stephen Kenny have exclusively fought it out for the League of Ireland title over the last five seasons.
The previous three FAI Cup finals between the sides could not be settled in 90 minutes – an indication of the intense battle that should be expected come this Sunday.
Caulfield was quick to play down expectations coming into this final, insisting that his side will go into the match as underdogs when addressing the media at the Cork International Hotel on Monday.
“We’ve been the underdogs for the last three years,” the Cork manager said to reporters.
“You’d expect that with the fact that they [Dundalk] won the league but at the same time, we could create our own history, being the first team in Cork ever to win three [FAI Cups] in a row.”
The Leesiders finished the league campaign strongly by winning their last three matches, but the five-match winless run which preceded that saw them finish ten points behind champions Dundalk.
Caulfield is adamant, however, that his fifth season in charge at Turner's Cross has been a success and reckons that his side has overachieved in spite of the criticism that’s recently come his way.
“This season again has been a phenomenal season when you consider the turnaround of the players that we had from last year’s squad to this year’s again.
“To lose seven, eight players from last year, five or six of your starting team who had been part of the league campaign.
“That’s just the way the League of Ireland is so we’ve rebuilt again and it’s a testament and credit to this team that again, they’ve qualified for Europe.
“A lot of teams had invested heavily and there was going to be a much stronger challenge but again, I think we’d qualified for Europe with seven games to go.
“Obviously in the league, we lost a bit of form at the wrong time and our team hadn’t been as settled as you would like it, but we’re back in a cup final.
“Considering we’re a fans-owned club and the way the club is run, we’ve been boxing way ahead of ourselves over the last number of years and financially, we’re not in the running with a number of other clubs.
“But the players have been phenomenal, the management have worked hard and it’s great for the supporters and it would be fantastic if we could win the cup.”
Cork have no fresh injury concerns coming into this final but Karl Sheppard, who scored in the semi-final replay win over Bohemians, is in a race against time to recover in time for the Aviva showdown.
When asked about Patrick Hoban, who is Dundalk’s biggest injury concern, Caulfield quipped: “I’ll give €100 to Marymount if he’s not playing. There’s no question he’ll be out Sunday, not a chance.”
Hoban, who’s netted 32 times in all competitions this year, left the dressing room in crutches following last Friday’s draw at Bohs, but Kenny is confident that his leading light will play on Sunday.
“Preparations are going fine; the players have been in really good form in recent weeks,” said Kenny.
“Going into the Bohemians game, we picked up a few injuries in that period so it won’t be a perfect week in terms of our training, but I’m confident that we should have who we need at the weekend.”
Crowned league champions four weeks ago, a fourth FAI Cup final in as many seasons signals a golden opportunity for Kenny to claim his second league and cup double as Dundalk manager.
It’s been a record-breaking campaign for the Lilywhites, who have scored more goals and points than any other team in League of Ireland history, while they’re also yet to concede in this year’s cup.
“It’s a great honour to be in the FAI Cup final and we should never be complacent about that.
“Before we were in it a couple of years ago, there was a previous 13 years we hadn’t been in it and it was a long period before the previous one as well, so you shouldn’t really take it for granted.
“It’s a great position to be in, to sort of win a double-double if you like, over the last couple of years and the other league titles so that’s what we want.
“We want to try and play well on Sunday and try and really put in a good performance but we’ll have to earn it, we know that.
“Cork will be formidable opponents and nobody hands you the trophy, you have to go and earn it and we understand that.”
The town of Dundalk has been emblazoned in colour throughout most of the season and an estimated quarter of the town’s population are expected to make the trip down to Dublin.
“We’ve had tremendous support over the last couple of seasons,” reflected Kenny.
“30,000-odd is the population of Dundalk so you’re competing against all the cities really and for a provincial town to go to the Aviva, the national stadium, people do want to support the team and really get behind it.
“This year has been a real concerted effort right throughout, from the European campaign onwards, every business in the town having Dundalk flags, nearly every single business right throughout the town has been decked out in black and white.”
Along with Hoban, the Lilywhites are sweating over the fitness of Robbie Benson and Jamie McGrath, who both sat out the last league fixture against Bohemians due to niggling injuries.
Referee: Neil Doyle
This will be the ninth FAI Cup final to be played at the Aviva Stadium. Six of the previous eight finals have gone into extra-time with three going all the way to penalties, including last year’s showpiece.
Victory for Cork City would mean that they would become the first team to lift the FAI Cup for three consecutive years since Shamrock Rovers achieved the very same feat after beating Dundalk in 1987.
Dundalk, on the other hand, are aiming to win what would be an 11th FAI Cup as well as a fourth league and cup double of its history. Their three previous doubles came in 1979, 1988 and 2015.
PATH TO THE FINAL
Dundalk 3-0 Cobh Ramblers
Home Farm 1-5 Cork City
Cork City 4-0 Maynooth University Town
Dundalk 2-0 Finn Harps
Limerick 0-4 Dundalk
Longford Town 0-7 Cork City
Dundalk 1-0 UCD
Bohemians 1-1 Cork City
Cork City 2-1 Bohemians (Replay)
Cork City 12/5; Draw 5/2; Dundalk 10/11
Cork City 1-2 Dundalk
Doubtful: Karl Sheppard.
Injured: Karolis Chvedukas (ankle).
Doubtful: Robbie Benson (leg), Patrick Hoban (ankle), Jamie McGrath (groin).