Friday 15 December 2017

Sligo can script better outcome to final re-run

But Shels will hope to revive the spirit of '09, says Seán Ryan

IT'S strange how history has a habit of repeating itself. And for FAI Ford Cup final favourites Sligo Rovers that means re-living results of 72 and two years' vintage, and hopefully correcting the mistakes of those past finals.

Today's final between Sligo and Shelbourne is a repeat of the final of 1939, when Sligo's cup run was enhanced by the presence of the legendary Everton and England striker William Ralph 'Dixie' Dean, who had just wound down a glorious career at Notts County and had been snapped up by an enterprising Sligo committee.

Dean's presence created huge public interest, with record crowds whenever he played, including the final replay, but despite registering his first Cup goal in the final, Sligo lost after conceding direct from a corner and another from a free-kick.

The Liverpool connection is strong again for Sligo today. Scouser Paul Cook has guided the club to its present eminence, playing a brand of football that is admired all over the country.

Cook's ability to turn a team of also-rans into winners in the space of three years is the reason bigger clubs are showing interest in securing his talents. It must have been a huge relief to the Showgrounds faithful when he turned down the St Johnstone post.

That had echoes of Stephen Kenny's position in 2006, when he led Derry City to a glorious European campaign and to the FAI Cup final, and was snapped up by Dunfermline Athletic. Despite dividing his time between Derry and Dunfermline, he managed to complete his job at the Brandywell by winning the FAI Cup.

Cook has no such distractions as he attempts to retain the Cup, won in such thrilling fashion on penalties last year against Shamrock Rovers. The fact that shoot-out hero Ciarán Kelly has been ousted by Brendan Clarke shows there is no sentiment in football.

Kelly was also a central figure in the drama which unfolded in the 2009 final. Sligo were winning 1-0 when a controversial penalty was awarded against their goalkeeper, and Sporting Fingal went on to win with a last-minute goal. Sporting Fingal are no more, but they have left their mark on this final, with no fewer than five of their cup-winning squad in the Shelbourne ranks today, and another lining out with Sligo.

The Westerners are likely to field as many as seven of that '09 team, all of which makes this game something of a re-run. Add to that the fact that Shelbourne are in a similar position to Sporting Fingal in '09, having just clinched promotion, and the portents might appear ominous for Sligo.

However, Sligo then were a work in progress. This season they have shown signs of being the finished product, maintaining their interest in the league title until the penultimate series of games, and reaching their third successive FAI Cup final.

Only a handful of clubs have managed to retain the Cup -- Shamrock Rovers, Cork Hibernians, Shelbourne and Longford Town -- and Sligo can join that elite list today. They are a quality full-time side playing quality football on a big pitch, which should suit them more than their part-time rivals.

In addition, the present side is stronger at the back than last season, with the arrival of Jason McGuinness at centre-back, stronger in midfield for the inclusion of Richie Ryan who was suspended last year, and stronger up front with the return of Raffaele Cretaro after his sabbatical with Bohemians.

Cook is also well served by a strong bench, most of whom would be very welcome at most other Premier clubs; players like Conor Powell, Derek Foran, John Dillon and Alan Kirby.

Forewarned is forearmed, so there is no chance of Sligo taking lightly the challenge of a Shelbourne team which includes players like Colm James, Stephen Paisley and Conan Byrne, who denied them Cup success two years ago, while Lorcan Fitzgerald and Kevin Dawson were also in that Fingal squad. It might seem like history repeating itself, but Sligo will be hoping for a different outcome this time.

Shelbourne v Sligo Rovers

RTE2, 3.30

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