North of the Border

The Setanta Sports Cup is the latest incarnation of the numerous All-Ireland football competitions that have taken place intermittently down the years. This particular competition has been running in various formats since 2005 but this season will be the first time that Shamrock Rovers have taken part.

Rovers’ first game in the competition was the recent quarter final first leg against Lisburn Distillery in the New Grosvenor Stadium. Rovers brought close to two hundred fans up the M1 to see this new chapter in Rovers’ history. It was a fairly low key entry to the competition with the away fans outnumbering the home fans in the stadium. Michael O’Neill took the opportunity to mostly start players who had not featured in Rovers’ opening league fixtures. The 3-0 first leg win, with goals from Karl Sheppard, Ciarán Kilduff and Dean Kelly, has set Rovers up nicely for the second leg here in Tallaght.

For many Rovers fans it was their first taste of Setanta Cup action and maybe their first trip to see an Irish League side. However for many others trips over the border have become somewhat commonplace in recent years. Of course for many years Rovers fans have been travelling to the Brandywell to watch Rovers play our fellow League of Ireland club Derry City. This journey is, to use an oxymoron, fairly unique in world football. It required permission from the Irish League and UEFA for Derry to join the League of Ireland back in 1985. The trip has certain political connotations as Rovers fans have to travel out of the jurisdiction over the border to London….sorry Derry for the game! In Derry fans can pay in and buy a programme using sterling but Derry also accommodate the euro in fans wallets and generally make the travelling fans feel welcome in the Brandywell while of course looking to get the three points from the visitors.

For the League of Ireland pre-season, Rovers play matches against teams not in the same division as the Hoops. Rovers have generally played against a mix of non-league, First Division teams and in recent seasons Irish League sides during the pre-season. These games against teams from the North provide a useful exercise as it is an opportunity to play teams from Northern Ireland that are in the middle of their season. In 2005, we played two games against Irish League sides during pre-season. The first game was a 2-2 draw away to Portadown and then the Hoops got a 3-3 draw against Newry City. This was a match in Newry that was cancelled and then re-arranged at short notice. It was such short notice that a few Bohemians fans travelled up thinking the Gypsies were playing that night as they were also due to play a friendly that week. When they heard it was actually Rovers playing, they got back in their car and headed south of the border quickly! Both sets of fans chatted as we shared the main stand in the Newry Showgrounds. The locals were amused with the couple of Rovers tricolours on display in their main stand and set about taking photos of them with their camera phones. In 2009, in Michael O’Neill’s first game in charge, the Hoops played another game against Newry, this time winning 4-2. This season Rovers had an impressive pre-season 5-2 win against Cliftonville in Solitude, a ground that many Rovers fans have visited to support The Reds over the years.

Getting back to the Setanta Cup, this writer is probably one of the few Shamrock Rovers fans to have actually been at a Setanta Cup game in Ulster. 2005 was the inaugural season of the Setanta Cup with six teams taking part (the top two in each league along with the respective cup winners). With the novelty of this competition in mind, this Shamrock Rovers fan travelled up with a Shelbourne supporting friend of mine to Portadown. There would have been some concerns about security at these games and for Shelbourne fans it meant that only fans travelling on their club’s official buses could go to the game. Tickets were sold on the bus only and my friend had to vouch for me with the then Chairman of Shelbourne Ollie Byrne who distributed the tickets on the bus. The M1 at that stage was not complete and the road works in Dundalk delayed our four bus convoy’s arrival in Portadown. There we were met on the outskirts by a couple of PSNI landrovers that directed us to the ground and these later escorted us out giving us a friendly wave when the pulled in to let us pass. As the fans queued outside to enter the beautiful named Shamrock Park, the match had already kicked off and most fans missed the only goal of the game scored by Shelbourne’s Jason Byrne in the fourth minute. Former Shamrock Rovers player Vinnie Arkins went close for Portadown a number of times in the game but Shels claimed the victory going on to qualify for the final against Linfield. Alan Mannus was in the Blues goal in the final played in Tolka Park and he kept a clean sheet helping Linfield win 2-0 to pick up the inaugural Setanta cup.

In 2006, the Setanta Cup expanded to eight teams with the respective League Cup winners added to the format. Shelbourne faced a trip to the Oval to take on Glentoran and again this Rovers fan found himself amongst the travelling Shelbourne support. It was a small enough crowd at the game which meant Willo MacDonagh got a fright when he got a “Rovers Reject” chant directed at him from this Rovers fan at the game. This was a player remembered not so fondly for his four red cards he received for Rovers in the previous season and his part in that relegated Rovers team. Shels won that night with goals from Byrne again and former Shamrock Rovers player Ollie Cahill. Neither team would go on to win the competition as Drogheda United won the trophy and would go on to retain it in 2007. In the 2008 season, Cork City overcame Glentoran in Turner’s Cross to win the Setanta Cup.

The return tie with Lisburn Distillery in Tallaght Stadium is not the first Setanta Sports Cup game to be played here in the Dublin 24 venue. Last year, the 2009/10 competition saw Bohemians beat Saint Patrick’s Athletic 1-0 in the final played here in Tallaght. There was some delight from the Bohs faithful rejoicing in the fact that they had won a piece of silverware in Tallaght ahead of Shamrock Rovers. The fact that Rovers have won all those FAI Cups in the home of Bohemians didn’t seem to register with them!

The format of the competition has again changed this season with six teams from both Leagues taking part in a straight knock out two legged competition. The winners of the respective Cup competitions along with the League Cup winners join the top four teams from each league. Rovers, as League of Ireland Champions, received a bye into the quarter final and will hope to progress in the competition which will conclude in May. If an Irish League team qualifies for the final, the final will be played in Northern Ireland. For Rovers that may well mean another trip north of the border but if it is two League of Ireland teams in the final it could represent an opportunity to win a trophy on our home patch here in Tallaght.

Published in Hoops Scene Issue 2-2011 (Shamrock Rovers v Lisburn Distillery March 2011)

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