Sunday 18 March 2018

Final celebrates rich inheritance

Eamonn Sweeney

Today is FAI Cup Final Day. It is the biggest day of the domestic soccer calendar, not anything like as big an occasion as an All-Ireland final but a more important national decider than any other sport in this country can muster all the same.

The FAI Cup final is no mean final because the League of Ireland is no mean league. And since the final has moved to the Aviva Stadium it's gotten a new lease of life. Despite all the ill-founded predictions of the league's demise, the attendance at the last three finals has numbered over 73,000. Compare this to the 29,000 who attended the first three finals of the previous decade. Things are on the way up.

Sligo Rovers will be going for their . . . Actually, damn this pretend objectivity, Sligo Rovers will be going for our third win in four years, Drogheda United for their second in the competition's history. The fans of both teams will have grown up treasuring the Cup, not least because it offered great solace for clubs which, like today's contestants, had to be followed through thin and thin.

A league title being obviously beyond your favourites, the cup could seem a site of infinite possibility. A lucky win here, a handy draw there, a home tie here and you'd never know. It was usually after around the sixth league defeat of the season that my father would declare with what I now suspect was false confidence, "We look like a cup team this year."

Things are better for the contemporary Rovers fan. Last year's league title was footballing nirvana and though St Patrick's Athletic deservedly took the crown this term, we managed a top-three finish for the fourth season in a row, something which a few years ago would have been as unimaginable as Labour Party ministers okaying schemes which made qualified teachers work for €50 a week and plotting the privatisation of the water supply. You never know, do you?

Yet the Cup retains its spell over not just our fans but over the fans of every club in the league. Even if you win the title at home in a showdown against one of your main rivals, as Rovers did last year, it still doesn't quite have the sense of occasion of a Cup final played in a stadium like the Aviva. The Cup final brings everyone out. Hence the fact that we have already sold almost 2,000 more tickets for today than for that showdown against Pat's.

I often wonder why cranks who never go to its matches seem to be perpetually cross with our national league. Sometimes I think it's because the League of Ireland is a bit like Socialism. It may be a weak and marginal presence but that it exists at all is too much to bear for people whose consciences are pricked by its continuing presence.

Poor things. The League of Ireland is a resilient beast. Trapattoni disrespected it but now he's gone while Longford Town and Waterford United and Sligo Rovers and Drogheda United are still there. And when his influence on Irish football is no more than the faintest of memories, the fans will gather on days like today to watch another FAI Cup final.

Because it's what we do, we are bound to these teams and can't help it. We didn't choose them because they were successful when we were in national school or switch to them when they won something a few years ago. We inherited them. Like GAA fans do. And today we'll give thanks for that inheritance.

Come on the Bit O'Red.

Sunday Independent

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