THE Setanta Cup will go ahead next year with a huge cloud hanging over its future after Northern Irish champions Cliftonville and their highest-profile club, Linfield, refused an invitation to participate in the 2014 renewal.
Ballinamallard Town and Coleraine, who finished fifth and sixth in last year's Irish League, were drafted in at the last minute to join Crusaders and Glentoran in tomorrow's draw next to League of Ireland representatives Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk, Sligo Rovers and St Patrick's Athletic.
Cliftonville and Linfield explained their decisions on the basis that the scheduled February-May time-frame clashes directly with the business end of their domestic season, with the latter adding that the smaller prize fund was a factor. When Linfield won the first staging of the competition in 2005, the total pot was €350,000. In 2014, €73,000 will be shared out with €33,000 to the winners (down from €50,000 last year) and just €4,500 for clubs that depart in the quarter or semi-finals in a tournament that has been reduced from 12 to eight teams.
"With a much-reduced prize fund available to clubs competing in the Setanta Sports Cup and also taking into account the considerable difficulties faced by our supporters travelling to attend these games, the Linfield board of directors has, on this occasion, taken the decision not to enter the 2014 Setanta Sports Cup competition," read a statement from the Windsor Park club which also hinted at security issues that have cropped up on their travels.
The absence of the Belfast pair will considerably undermine the competition. Their away support will be missed by the Airtricity League representatives, who are keen for the cross-border initiative to stay afloat.
That's hardly surprising given their dominance of the trophy. Since Linfield's inaugural triumph, Crusaders (2011) are the only Irish League team to be crowned champions; three of the last four finals have been all-Airtricity League affairs. In 2013, no Northern club made the semi-final stage.
With the €33,000 prize the equivalent of a third-placed league finish, and the games providing crucial match practice at the beginning of the year, teams south of the border have taken the competition more seriously.
Setanta's backing was in doubt until the broadcaster's resurgence from their partnership with BT Sport and ESPN.
"It has given us the platform to be able to return as sponsor and broadcaster and continue to invest in Irish football," said marketing operations director Brian Quinn.
Competing clubs were informed that the FAI and the IFA were searching for a fresh title sponsor with Setanta remaining as TV partners if that hunt was successful, but the entire concept has been placed in jeopardy by Cliftonville and Linfield's stance. Neither have ruled out participation in the future, but their actions could turn out to be the hammer blow for an innovation that was once viewed as a possible fore-runner to an All-Ireland League.
Meanwhile, Dundalk have moved to strengthen their squad for next term by raiding Sligo for striker Dave McMillan. The Lilywhites' board are still mulling over whether to meet the compensation figure required to secure the services of Cork's Daryl Horgan, who has chosen Dundalk over Shamrock Rovers. Limerick have agreed a new deal with highly regarded frontman Rory Gaffney.