Any boxing promoter keen to hype up a so-so bout would be delighted if the combatants possessed the dislike Dundalk and Cork City feel for each other. Today’s FAI Cup final is a real grudge match between two sides whose rivalry has taken on a keen personal edge.
In the run-up to last year’s final, fuel was added to the fire when footage emerged of Cork ‘keeper Mark McNulty leading a chant of ‘fuck the Lilywhites’ as City celebrated their league title victory. Dundalk’s post-defeat tweet, “In football you don’t always get what you deserve. Today, the better team lost,” indicated an equal disdain for the more Corinthian side of sporting competition.
These public outbursts merely confirmed the general suspicion that the usual platitudes about two fine teams being full of respect for each other don’t apply in this case. The previous year there had been an unmistakable peevishness about Cork’s complaints that they were ignored before the final because everyone was making a fuss over Dundalk’s European exploits.
Proximity may be the main contributor to the tensions between two teams who’ve begun to resemble feuding neighbours fed up of living in each other’s pockets. Four seasons on the trot they’ve filled the top two places in the league. Today will be their third successive Cup final meeting. Small wonder that their games tend to be close and tetchy affairs. Familiarity has bred contempt.
Dundalk’s league triumph seems to prove they’re easily the better of the two teams. Record points and goals totals made it as impressive a campaign as the League of Ireland has seen. Today they’ll seek to emulate the feat of Sligo Rovers in 2010 by winning the FAI Cup without conceding a goal.
Yet Cork also have the chance to reach a significant milestone today by becoming the first side since Shamrock Rovers in 1987 to complete a hat-trick of final wins and the only club apart from the Hoops, who won five- and six-in-a-rows in earlier decades, to do so.
Can this be the third consecutive season that Cork find redemption on the final day of the season? Two years ago Seán Maguire’s last-gasp goal took some of the gloss off Dundalk’s incredible season. Last year Cork might just have won the league title but the way they stumbled over the line meant they were again the ones who had something to prove in the decider. They did so and were, whatever Dundalk said, the better team and deserving winners of the shoot-out.
The stakes seem even higher for City this time after a season when they were clearly second best to Dundalk. There’s been an air of frustration about manager John Caulfield (pictured) all season which manifested itself most clearly when he was sent off during the home loss to Dundalk that effectively saw Cork surrender their title.
Caulfield’s complaints last week that Dundalk are “buying players that they don’t really need because they want to monopolise it . . . if a team invests heavily and buys all the best players of course they’re going to win,” seem like an effort to further raise the temperature in advance of the final. They look likely to make a Dundalk team, already fired up by the memory of the villainous McNulty’s match-winning shoot-out saves last year, even more determined to avoid another anti-climactic end to the season.
I’d love to predict a flowing match perfectly suited to the final’s role as domestic soccer’s big showpiece occasion. But the past three deciders have been surpassingly dour affairs, producing just four goals in six hours of football. There are players, Pat Hoban, Michael Duffy and Patrick McEleney for Dundalk, Graham Cummins, Kieran Sadlier and Garry Buckley for Cork, who could enliven any match but chances of a thriller are pretty slim.
On the other hand, who doesn’t enjoy watching a game between two teams who hate each other?
With City apparently poised to cut back financially in a major way next season, this might be the last great showdown in this most ferocious of rivalries.
Whoever wins today will feel really good about it. Victory is sweetest when the rivalry is bitter.
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