Opinion

Just as everyone who kicks a football in England dreams of being able to do so at Wembley, anyone involved in the game in the Republic of Ireland has a burning ambition of gracing the pristine turf of the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. This is a privilege that is realised by very few aside from those gifted enough to make the Irish international squad and those who forge their way to one of the country’s top clubs for the FAI Cup final in November – in the last three years, that has applied only to Cork City and Dundalk, narrowing the pool even more.

However, the opportunity of playing at the national stadium is one that’s afforded to everyone who plays soccer in Ireland, thanks to a welcome decision from the much-maligned FAI to stage the Junior and Intermediate Cup finals at the Aviva, just as the FA has the Trophy and Vase showpieces at Wembley. Granted, there is a familiarity to the list of names who get to those cup finals – they regularly feature the Dublin powerhouses of Sheriff YC, Cherry Orchard, Bluebell United and Crumlin United, or strong Munster representatives like Pike Rovers, Avondale United, Fairview Rangers and St Michael’s. These all start off on an equal footing to every football club in the country, though, battling through several county rounds before earning the right to play teams from elsewhere in Ireland.

Last Saturday, it was the turn of Pike Rovers, North End United, Firhouse Clover and Maynooth University Town to have their day in the sun, literally as well as figuratively. Contrary to what was stated in the initial press release from the FAI about finals day, the Junior Cup decider was first up, with Pike Rovers of Limerick making this journey for the second time in three years after losing in the 2016 final while Wexford’s North End United were embarking on uncharted territory. From the media gantry, the 2,000 or so spectators who attended could be very much heard but not at all seen, with paying supporters seated underneath the positions occupied by those on press duty.

There is something a little surreal about games like this being played at a major venue. Every contact of boot with ball echoed around the fibreglass shell that enveloped the pitch and stands. Every instruction from coaches and players reverberated across the vast expanse of a near-empty venue. The words of the public address announcer and the selection of music that alternated with him boomed through you like a pneumatic drill, like shouting at someone when they’re the only other person in the living room. What the day lacked in seat occupancy, though, it made up for in the passion of the players’ families and communities who gave up their Saturday to descend on the Aviva. For those with a vested interest in the Junior Cup final, this involved at least a four-hour round trip just to get to Dublin.

The team sheets were a mixture of League of Ireland alumni and ‘regular Joes’ who would daily be seen serving the good people of their parishes in franchise grocery shops or pulling pints at their local to the appreciation of the faces they know so well. Pike Rovers included four players in their matchday squad who once were on the books of Limerick FC, the city’s flagship full-time club which currently has Premier Division status. North End United had a couple of men who previously featured for Wexford Youths, a club relegated from the Irish top flight in 2016, established by incorrigible politician Mick Wallace (a passable body double for Worzel Gummidge) and subsequently rebranded as Wexford FC.

In a classic case of the cream rising to the top, the former full-time players stole the thunder of their less celebrated team-mates by providing the game’s standout moments. North End United captain Paul Murphy, a necessary distinction as there was another player of the same name who later appeared as substitute, won and scored a first half penalty before ex-Limerick FC midfielder Steven McGann equalised for Pike on the hour. After 90 minutes and extra time couldn’t separate the teams, it fell to the lottery of penalties and it was another ex-Wexford Youths man in Gary Delaney whose spot kick won North End United their first Junior Cup crown, consigning Pike to a second final defeat in three years.

With the destination of the Junior Cup not decided until roughly 4:30pm and the Intermediate Cup final scheduled to start just half an hour later, the teams involved in the latter match were on the pitch doing their warm-ups when the gleeful North End United players were displaying the Junior Cup trophy to their band of supporters. The Intermediate Cup final was a far less nationwide affair, with Firhouse Clover based in the Dublin suburb of Tallaght up against Maynooth University Town, situated in east Kildare just across the border separating it from County Dublin.

Both of these clubs are in their infancy, with Firhouse only founded 11 years ago and Maynooth Town merging with the municipality’s third level institute in 2014. Firhouse began the match as favourites given their loftier status in the Leinster Senior League pyramid and when they took the lead on 71 minutes, it looked as if they would see the job through. They were on course to do so right up to the third minute of stoppage time when Darragh Reynor plundered an equaliser for Maynotoh to send the game to 30 minutes of extra time, a situation that wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by the four weary occupants in the press box. Yours truly had left home before 8am to attend finals day; the second match would go beyond 7:30pm if penalties were necessitated.

There were no spot kicks in the Intermediate Cup final, though, as underdogs Maynooth added three goals in extra time to put the Dublin club to the sword. Their celebrations were no doubt as unreserved as those of North End United earlier in the day, but not too many neutrals stuck around to witness them.

The setting for the next football match at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday 2 June, with Ireland taking on USA in a friendly that could be John O’Shea’s farewell to international duty almost 17 years after his debut, is bound to be markedly different to what it was last Saturday. For the 64 players who featured across the two games, though, it’s an occasion that will not soon be forgotten, particularly by those who left with winners’ medals and returned to Wexford and Maynooth respectively as heroes who took small-town clubs to national glory.