O'Neill's men out to rewrite history books
IT'S a long time since the FAI Cup final has drummed up such interest. A long time, too, since Shamrock Rovers have arrived on the big day with something to shout about. Coincidence?
The first decider to be staged at the new Aviva Stadium was always going to command more attention than usual, particularly when the authorities made the laudable decision to price tickets fairly in these difficult times.
But the identity of the protagonists has delivered the real spice, with the presence of the double-chasing Hoops turning heads and breathing fresh life into a day out which has changed venues as much as the Dublin club have in the last decade.
Drogheda's maiden cup win over league winners Cork brought over 20,000 to the old Lansdowne five years ago but, if the weather is polite tomorrow, then the attendance could exceed the 30,000 which turned up for the famous 1990 duel between Bray and non-league St Francis.
The Sligo Rovers factor is considerable, of course. They will bring a huge following to Dublin 4 and, with players from around the country and further afield, their participation gives tomorrow's clash a far broader appeal than an all-capital affair would have.
Paul Cook's side are driven by a desire to atone last year's heartbreak at the hands of Sporting Fingal. Yet that was a game played out in front of 8,000 spectators in Tallaght. This is a different ball game altogether.
Whatever happens, Shamrock Rovers will have enjoyed a memorable campaign, with South Dublin Council throwing a civic reception on Monday evening to honour their achievements.
Their manager Michael O'Neill is well aware, however, that while a certain pressure was lifted by league success, the significance of this encounter cannot be understated.
His employers may have lifted the FAI Cup a staggering 24 times, yet since their last success in 1987 they have reached the final on just two occasions (losing in 1991 and 2002) while lesser entities have racked up appearances.
It didn't take O'Neill long to realise that the Cup famine was niggling away at the hardcore fans. He remembers a heckler suggesting that he didn't "understand the cup" following a draw with Drogheda in his first FAI Cup match in charge.
"My understanding of the cup is that you beat each team as you go through each round, and if you get beaten you're out of the cup," he said. "My understanding was not naive. Last season, we lost in the quarter-final (against Sporting Fingal). People felt we fielded a weakened side because Gary Twigg didn't play -- he didn't play because he had a personal problem. People make statements without having the full facts.
"From within the club, the cup has been very special. Supporters tend to remember the cup better than the league in a sense. It's a day out and sticks in the memory longer.
"In the league, the fans go through the ups and down and the heartache which the managers and players go through as well, certainly the roller-coaster we went through in final quarter, the supporters felt that deeply as well. They can approach the day with a better mood and hopefully we can give them a day to remember."
This crop would truly secure their place in the club's folklore if they take away the trophy. Becoming the first Rovers side to claim the championship in this era is a notable feat in itself, but becoming the seventh team in the club's long history to secure the double would bring their legacy to another level. After all, the great Hoops side of the 1960s only managed to do it once.
Who are their potential heroes? Well, like every successful League of Ireland side, there's a number of 'nearly men' stories, talented individuals who could have been contenders on a higher plain only for circumstance.
Gary Twigg was rated highly enough to make a Premier League debut with Derby as a teenager until a loss of form and confidence sent him on a downward spiral -- before O'Neill brought the front man from Scotland to Ireland.
Craig Sives' story is remarkable. Breaking through as a defender at Hearts, Sives was tipped for great things. He was awarded a five-year contract which was terminated after three and a half years in due to persistent injuries.
With clubs in Scotland afraid of taking a punt on what they deemed a crock, O'Neill invited him to Ireland at the start of 2009 but a scan revealed a tear in his groin. "When he told me he couldn't sign me, my head kind of went and in my head I was finished with football," Sives recalled. "I went back to Scotland, and had a look about, applied for a couple of college courses and stuff like that."
O'Neill kept in touch, however, and invited the 24-year-old over to Tallaght to try and get fit, with no guarantee of a contract. Sives knew a Dublin-based guy named Steve McKenna who owned his own company, Sonics Audio Visual. He gave him a job driving vans around and eventually repairing televisions. "I was getting a bit of money off him to keep me going," he said.
Two months later, the fitness was in better nick and the Hoops took a chance. From the depths of despair, Sives has got to rub shoulders with Real Madrid and Juventus and enjoy a taste of success.
It is a rare good-news story, like the Rovers resurgence in a time where much of Irish football's problems are a microcosm of the bigger picture. Having spent the boom years flapping around and living a miserable nomadic experience, it's the Hoops who have their house in order when rivals are left with no other option but to sell theirs.
"Financially, the club will be in a strong position to move forward next year," declared O'Neill. "And that's equally as important as having nice shiny cups in a cabinet."
You suspect they'll have the polish ready just in case.
This final has been billed as the clash of the league champions, Shamrock Rovers and the best footballing side in the league, Sligo Rovers. It is a description which has irked the Hoops, who argue that they topped the table for a reason, and haven't received enough credit for their style of play.
Nevertheless, key to their chances of success in this encounter will be their ability to stifle Sligo's midfield dynamos. Paul Cook's side have talented individuals like Joseph Ndo and John Russell who will thrive if given time and space.
However, Sligo are without the life and soul of their engine room, Richie Ryan, and also Matt Blinkhorn, so capable of holding the ball up as the lone striker and bringing others into play. Likely replacements Daniel Ventre and Eoin Doyle are good players, but don't possess the same quality.
If Shamrock Rovers can match Sligo in the midfield department, the double is within their grasp. Michael O'Neill also has the luxury of a stronger bench and though Gary Twigg faces a late fitness test he is expected to start. It's a close one to call, but strength in depth can carry the Hoops across the line.
Verdict: Shamrock Rovers