Wednesday 21 March 2018

Midfield generals enthused by next chapter of special rivalry in Irish football

Stephen O’Donnell and Gearóid Morrissey, pictured here battling it out during last year’s FAI Cup final, will renew rivalries in this year’s decider at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen O’Donnell and Gearóid Morrissey, pictured here battling it out during last year’s FAI Cup final, will renew rivalries in this year’s decider at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

This is the clash of the history-makers. A record-breaking rivalry.

Dundalk and Cork are the first two sides to meet in a FAI Cup final for three straight years. The first Irish sides to fill the top two spots in the league table for four years running.

The week building up to tomorrow afternoon's showdown at the Aviva Stadium has proved there is no trace of battle fatigue.

If anything, the intensity is growing by the year. Mark McNulty's speeches, Stephen Kenny's anger and other tales of off-the-pitch interactions have added depth to the story.

Repetitive? Speak to Gearóid Morrissey and Stephen O'Donnell, a pair of talented midfielders that have now become synonymous with their respective clubs, and it's clear that players want more of this.

"You could do nothing all week, honestly you could be in Spain, and you'd turn up on Sunday and you'd just be so geed up for this game," says Morrissey.

"You'd still be buzzing because, as the top players in the country, you want to play against top players who are on a par with you and see who comes out on top. That's no disrespect to anybody else. You know a bad touch means someone will be straight onto you and that makes you play better."

O'Donnell can understand the point. "I love these games," he asserts. "I love them. When you've got teams that have been at the top for four years, there's always going to be a thing where each group wants to be recognised as the best."

Morrissey and O'Donnell will be right in the heart of the midfield battle and they both have the ability to really impact on their side's performance.

They come from slightly different backgrounds. Morrissey is close to a one-club man. He was away with Blackburn as a youth and had a surprisingly underwhelming stint with Cambridge in 2015 but he's spent the rest of his senior career with Cork.

He was there for the changeover from the old broken entity to the new fan-run operation that was started from scratch by FORAS. Back then, €150 a week plus expenses was the norm.

The upward curve accelerated by John Caulfield's appointment has brought a new period of stability.

Ultimately, the bigger-picture end goal is regular European qualification and UEFA funds.

In the aftermath of this year's league success which atoned for three successive runners-up finishes, it was announced that local lad Morrissey had signed a new two-year, 52-week contract.

"I remember coming back from England and being in the Turner's Cross Community Centre having meetings when the club got liquidated and I love the fact I was in that room now," says Morrissey.

"Bar my year in Cambridge, I've been involved every step of the way. That first year, there was fellas coming off building sites to get to training. I'm proud that we've now got to this position."

As it happens, O'Donnell was at Cork when things really fell apart in 2009.

The one-time Arsenal trainee was in the middle of a period where he hopped from club to club - that Cork year sandwiched spells at Falkirk, Bohemians, Galway and Shamrock Rovers.

When Kenny asked him to come to Dundalk in 2013, the expectations for the injury-ravaged midfielder were low. He never envisaged that he would still be there in 2017, a well-known figure around the town that is already committed for a sixth season. By moving to the locality, he is embedded.

"I would have said I had the mentality of two to three years max and then go somewhere new," admits the Galwegian.

Three leagues, an FAI Cup, two EA Sports Cups and epic European adventures have justified staying put. As captain, his name is etched in the club's history.

His 31-year-old body has taken some punishment but he's finished the season strongly and was inspirational in the semi-final replay win over Shamrock Rovers.

He will start tomorrow and will likely be accompanied by Robbie Benson with the creative Patrick McEleney further forward.

They have found it hard in head-to-head games with Cork this term, with the Leesiders gaining confidence from their cup win 12 months ago although O'Donnell and Kenny have both referenced the interrupted prep to that Aviva meeting due to Europa League commitments.

"We were still out in Zenit on the Thursday night and the FAI Cup was like an afterthought," says O'Donnell. "This year it's going to be a normal week."

Morrissey watched Dundalk's European games furnished with the belief that City were close without getting half of the plaudits - that search for the same respect still drives Cork.

"People were saying they're far beyond the lot of ye but the fact then is that we'd play them and we'd beat them," asserts the 25-year-old. "I was watching with admiration, but also sitting there thinking we could be in that position."

Their style of play has been criticised and the drying up of goals since Sean Maguire's exit has led to commentary suggesting they lack invention. Morrissey bristles at that view and would like if the game here was analysed to the same extent of high-level UK games that get the Opta treatment.

"It's easy to throw an opinion out there," he says. "I'd love to have all the kilometres we do, the pass completion, through balls, a breakdown of that and I'd be confident we'd be up there compared to the midfield of teams that aren't getting any criticism. It might stop a lot of the hot air."

O'Donnell is happy to list the strengths of Cork's engine room. "Conor McCormack is the sitter, the destroyer putting out fires," he says. "Garry Buckley would be the one breaking into the box on your blind side and getting goals.

Continuity "Morrissey is in between, a number eight, who chips in too. They're physical boys and, in all fairness to them, they hardly ever miss a game. It's huge for a team to have continuity and we've missed that this year."

There is a mutual respect behind it all, even if the pleasantries are unlikely to be drawn out.

"I think you like some of them and you mightn't like others, it's like everything else," smiles O'Donnell, who says he was bemused by McNulty's approach to public gatherings of celebrating City fans.

"When I think of the trophies we've won, Cork City haven't come into my head that evening," he shrugs. "Our lads wouldn't think twice about them after shaking hands."

The tables have turned from 2016 with Dundalk having a bit of point to prove as Cork chase the double. Both players feel they will claim the trophy if they perform to the best of their ability.

To do so, Dundalk will have to utilise the width of Michael Duffy and Dylan Connolly to free McEleney and service Dave McMillan; Caulfield must get the best from Dundalk-bound Karl Sheppard, figure out the best use for Steven Beattie on the right side and figure out if the talented Kieran Sadlier has a role to play - even as a sub.

The fact that the last two finals were settled in extra-time after a scoreless 90 minutes means defensive concentration will be key. Caulfield is not anticipating expansive fare.

Dundalk might like it to be so, but the reality of recent meetings suggests otherwise.

The middle men will determine where the balance of power lies come tomorrow evening.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport