Remembering the cup final that captured Irish hearts
The 1990 FAI Cup decider was a special football occasion that will never be repeated
Earlier this month, the 25th anniversary of an extraordinary Irish sporting event passed without much fanfare. It shouldn't be allowed to fade from memory.
On May 13, 1990, Lansdowne Road staged its first FAI Cup final, a game which brought together two unlikely protagonists and initially left organisers fearing an empty stadium.
After a series of upsets, it came down to First Division side Bray Wanderers and St Francis of the Leinster Senior League, a tie that didn't exactly scream glamour.
But in this strange little country of ours, the novelty value ended up making it the best attended cup final since 1968, a blip on the graph at a point where domestic crowds were falling. The implausible script captured the imagination in a way that no other final of that era could.
Even now, the sheer improbability of it all draws chuckles from the participants. In the week of the match, FAI insiders were estimating a 8,000 turnout. That in excess of 25,000 turned up was a testament to cheap tickets, reasonable weather and, crucially, a great story.
Pete Mahon, then manager of St Francis, still has a trace of amazement in his voice as he harks back to a fairytale 10 game run that propelled an amateur side into the national spotlight and 90 minutes away from Europe.
A semi-final win over Bohemians was the real giant-killing moment, although they had earlier knocked out Cobh in what proved to be Roy Keane's last game in Ireland. (Mahon wandered over to Keane at an FAI function in the Burlington some years later to remind him and was greeted with 'that stare'.)
But in 1990, St Francis were the headline grabbers, at the centre of a circus which spiralled out of control to the extent that it made a coherent preparation impossible.
Mahon laughs as he recalls the inadequacy of the lead-in, the presence of an RTE crew following his lads around for a documentary and the collective decision to attend the wedding reception of a key player, Trevor Coleman, on the eve of the final - understandably enough, the groom had never envisaged a clash. Drinking was forbidden, but it was just one element of a slapstick warm-up.
Still, the team which was accustomed to double-figure attendances was making new friends. A suspension of junior football swelled their support as entire teams came out in force to back one of their own. "I'll always be grateful for that," says Mahon.
What really blew up the numbers was the response from Liberties residents and, significantly, Dubs sprinkled around the city with an affinity to the area from their youth. Francis St was always a hub of fundraising activity for the club (reverse the words and it makes sense) and the throngs descended on the morning of the match to create a carnival atmosphere.
Mahon had brought Coleman's brother Greg out to Mick Byrne in the Irish team hotel to get an injury treated and when they returned to Francis Street to catch the bus, there was no room on the roads. "We couldn't move," he recalls. "We had to call the police for an escort."
Bray was buzzing too - this was also a glorious chapter in their short history. They shared in the hype that went beyond sports media, the captains were invited on to the Late Late Show on the Friday.
Seagulls skipper Dermot Judge remembers it well as it allowed him to meet Sir Stanley Matthews in RTE - a special guest who ended up attending the game in Lansdowne along with Jack Charlton who was gearing up for Italia 90 as football fever swept the country.
Judge was confident. In any other year the Seagulls would have been the underdogs. A run to the semis in 1989 had fostered belief and they felt their moment had arrived. "I knew we'd win," says Judge. "It was lovely going into to a game with that feeling. St Francis might have played better football but we were stronger, we were ready."
St Francis made it to the ground eventually, where the FAI were beginning to realise they'd be needing the keys for the terrace. DART delays held up the Bray masses and the game kicked off more than 15 minutes late.
Members of both dressing rooms were shocked as they emerged to an attendance which some believed was well above the official figure (typically, a row with the FAI over gate receipts unfolded months later).
Mahon agrees that Pat Devlin's Bray handled the occasion better. A hat-trick from John Ryan, a waiter in the nearby Berkeley Court, proved the difference with a pair of penalties and a wonder strike making the striker front page news.
The Bray boys went home on an open-top bus to enjoy celebrations which went on for weeks. Judge admits he doesn't know where his medal is but it's irrelevant because the special moments remain fresh in his head. His late parents were present and he attempted to climb into the stand and find them at the final whistle. What he also holds dear is the picture in his mind of carrying his 18-month-old son, Alan, on to the pitch to savour the scene. That young mascot is now 26 and preparing to link up with Martin O'Neill's squad for the first time after his outstanding displays for Brentford this term. He used to be known as Dermot Judge's son.
Sadly, the 25-year anniversary passed by at Bray without official recognition from the current hierarchy as acrimony reigns. "The club that existed then - it isn't there now," sighs Judge, who is hopeful some form of gathering can be arranged this year. He's in contact with some ex-colleagues from a typically transient League of Ireland dressing room. Players moved on.
The St Francis bond lasted because of their rare feat, an adventure which continued beyond the final with a street party in Dublin 8 spilling into Monday where they were invited to a civic reception in the Mansion House.
Junior players are used to fixture congestion at the end of a season and St Francis were not absolved from the drag - 48 hours after their Lansdowne date they were down to play Railway Union in the LSL. Mahon cobbled together groggy heads on the Tuesday for an inevitable defeat in front of 30 fans. Those were the days alright.
Every year, they meet in the Dean Swift on Francis Street and the big match video is produced. "We laugh at the haircuts," chuckles Mahon. "Some of the lads are baldy now. Some are fat. Some are baldy and fat. It's great to catch up."
The 2011 death of Terence Hilliard, a starting member of the team, adds poignancy to the reunion, while emphasising the need to keep in touch.
All parties involved in the 1990 decider appreciate they were part of a once-off event. The League of Ireland's switch to summer football changed the structure of the cup and killed off any realistic hope for comparable non-league romance.
Staging the Junior and Intermediate Cup finals at the Aviva gives the leading lights in that sphere a taste of the national stadium. A new generation would scoff at the prospect of a Sunday team going all the way in the senior showpiece, but Mahon can always say that he made it happen.
"It was the greatest time of my life," smiles the 67-year-old. Irish football will never throw up another story like it.