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Comment: The FAI Cup is stale - bring it forward and let amateur clubs reinvigorate the Cup

Wed, Feb 27 2019

The FAI Cup in its not literally stale form. Credit: Brian F Smyth (ETPhotos)

The FAI Cup is stale. The past four finals have been contested between Dundalk and Cork City – two wins apiece – and nobody would be surprised if the same pair made it a fivesome in November.

Admittedly, the attendance figures for the final have never been better and have been steadily impressive since the final returned to the Aviva Stadium in 2010.

36,101 people showed up to Lansdowne Road to see Sligo Rovers defeat Shamrock Rovers in a penalty shoot-out that year.

Figures for the years since – 21,662, 16,117, 17,573, 17,038, 25,103, 26,400, 24,210, 30,412 – have been consistent and particularly impressive since the Dundalk-Cork duopoly took over.

But beneath the premium level of the grand finale, the competition has lost its lustre, as demonstrated at League of Ireland grounds the length and breadth of the country.

Crowds numbering in three figures showed up to see Shamrock Rovers defeat Glenville in 2017 and Cork City see off Maynooth University in 2018, and that’s the tip of the iceberg.

Before the semi-final stage, even games between Premier Division sides struggle to attract crowds equivalent to a bog-standard league game, and managers prioritise accordingly.

The decline outlined above shouldn’t be exaggerated. As a showpiece event – and conclusion the League of Ireland season – the Cup final has grown massively in recent years.

For that, the FAI must be given a huge amount of credit, as should the clubs – particularly Sligo Rovers, Cork City and Dundalk – in making it a true calendar event.

The four finals contested in the old Lansdowne before its renovation in 2010 saw 12,000, 9.676, 24,521 and 16,022 – and the largest attendance featuring Cork City and Drogheda United.

You have to go back to the 1990s to see comparable figures for Irish football’s biggest game, and even then they were a rarity.

Before 2010, the largest attendance for an FAI Cup final since 1964 had been the 1989-90 Cup final between Bray Wanderers and Pete Francis’ non-league St Francis.

No team from outside the League of Ireland has made the final since.

The League of Ireland’s shift from an autumn-summer programme to a calendar year saw the FAI Cup move accordingly, with a truncated 2002 Cup seeing Derry City beat Rovers in the final.

The League of Ireland’s move to summer football – some critics aside – has been an unqualified success, but the effect on the competitiveness of the wider game has never been studied.

The overlapping seasons, the lack of a definable pyramid, the complex web of leagues and interest groups that make simple cooperation a chore rather than the norm are constants.

At amateur level, Saturday football in Dublin is dying a slow death while the lines between semi-professional football and the demands placed on Sunday players are increasingly blurred.

Clubs in the Leinster Senior League and Munster Senior League can compete with League of Ireland clubs in one-off games – that’s beyond dispute.

Bluebell United beat Cabinteely on the way to the quarter-finals of the FAI Cup in 2017, while Crumlin United put out Wexford the same year – both away from home.

2017 saw the early rounds of the cup moved back to July after the previous year’s fiasco, which saw Bluebell face Limerick as one of six games in 21 days that saw them stumble to the title by a point.

The later start date was a belated realisation that the competitiveness of the cup had been compromised by the disconnect between the amateur and senior game.

The shift to summer soccer had been intended to improve the game at the top level – and in that it succeeded – but it inadvertently broke the link between the two tiers.

Players can no longer move seamlessly between the League of Ireland and the Leinster or Munster Senior League as the registration windows don’t match up.

Moving the first round of the FAI Cup to July, while no longer interfering with the business end of the amateur season, now pits the same amateur teams in pre-season against pro sides in mid-season.

The achievement of teams like Bluebell in 2017, and Sheriff YC and Killester United in 2015, has to be seen in the context of the competitive disadvantage they were placed in to begin with.

Sometimes the problems that face Irish football seem insurmountable. Sometimes, they’re altogether more simple.

Move the FAI Cup to the first half of the League of Ireland season, finishing in a showpiece game in April or May. Move the FAI Junior and Intermediate Cups to earlier in the year.

Starting in February or March, the League of Ireland sides will have a pre-season behind them and be fit to fire, while amateur clubs will be at the prime end of their season.

The issues that dog amateur clubs in the FAI Cup – players with families having booked summer holidays months in advance and bedding players into pre-season – will cease to exist.

Instead of meaningless pre-season games, League of Ireland fans can watch their teams play competitive games against lower-league sides that are still in season rather than working their way to fitness and match sharpness.

The League of Ireland has proved remarkably adaptable, having  trialled four points for an away win in 1981-82. Since the introduction of the Premier Division in 1985, it's cycled between a ten-team and 12-team top-tier. It's time for the FAI Cup to try something less drastic.

And it might just reintroduce a spark to a competition that – for League of Ireland fans and managers, at least – has become something of an afterthought until the later rounds.