Windsor Park has played host to countless star players and teams over the years, yet for local football in Northern Ireland, the Irish Cup sits at the top of the pile. This year’s contest takes place this Saturday afternoon, and will see either Cliftonville or Coleraine lift the coveted trophy as the two Irish heavyweights battle it out.
Coleraine perhaps have more reason than most for revenge, having finished as runners-up in the competition last year at the hands of Linfield, with the Bannsiders suffering the same fate in 2008, again to the delight of giants Linfield. Moreover, having fallen to just one league defeat all season yet somehow still missing out on the title, Coleraine will be hungrier than ever to land some silverware after a gruelling and ultimately devastating campaign.
Cliftonville, on the other hand, having slipped to a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Irish Premiership, will be looking to win their first Irish Cup since 1979, when they won the competition for the eighth time after defeating Portadown 3-2. Coleraine meanwhile last won the tournament in 2003, their sixth title in the club’s history, yet Barry Gray’s side boast the unenviable record of having gone the longest period of time between wins in the final, with the 70-year gap spanning all the way back to 1909.
The Reds are, however, fourth in the list of the most successful sides in the competition’s history, with Coleraine not far behind them in eighth. The Bannsiders are undoubtedly in better form heading into the final, with two victories and three draws in their previous five league games, with Cliftonville winning two, losing two and drawing one in their last five. Oran Kearney’s Coleraine were also victorious in three of the four meetings between the sides in the league this season, with the other affair ending in a goalless stalemate at Solitude, yet not a single fan could call how Saturday’s game will go given the nature of uncertainty surrounding a cup final.
The clubs kicked-off their fantastic journeys in January’s Round 5, where Coleraine thumped Lisburn Distillery 7-0 at the Showgrounds, yet things certainly weren’t as comfortable for Cliftonville, who required extra-time to overcome a stubborn Warrenpoint Town 4-3 in a seven-goal thriller. Round 6 was however much more straightforward for the North Belfast outfit, who eased past their noisy neighbours Crusaders 4-1, with Coleraine crushing Championship side Institute by four goals to nil.
The quarter-finals were played out in mid-March, with both teams finding the competition much more difficult, yet both managed to edge out Belfast-based clubs 1-0, with Coleraine defeating Glentoran at home and Cliftonville beating Linfield at Windsor Park. Incredibly yet another home tie saw Coleraine overcome Larne 3-1 in the semi-finals, with Cliftonville condemning Loughgall to a 4-1 defeat at Solitude, and so an eagerly-anticipated final was ready for the making.
With clubs from the capital winning the title repeatedly in recent years, many followers of Irish football would like to see the trophy head to the north coast, particularly after a season of free-flowing football from Coleraine’s young side. Forward Jamie McGonigle has certainly caught the eye with 16 league goals, yet fellow Bannsider Darren McCauley went one better, equalling the 17 of Cliftonville forward Jay Donnelly, who was also outdone by teammate Joe Gormley, who finished joint top-scorer with Gavin Whyte of league-winning Crusaders on 22, and so a finely poised final is in the offing.
A thrilling title finish at both ends of the table, together with a whole host of aspiring young footballers aiming to make a name for themselves across the water with a professional contract, has served up a truly memorable season in Irish football, in an area where the sport is beloved to most yet is often overlooked by many.
Nerves will unquestionably play a part for many, both on and off the pitch, yet a noisy and colourful Windsor Park is one feature that will be ever-present throughout the build-up and duration of the match, with one set of supporters in delirium as the other shuffle home with the heartbreak of a cup final defeat. The stadium is awaiting, let’s hope both teams put on a display to truly showcase the positives of Irish football and all it has to offer.