THIS WEEKEND MARKS a break from the Airtricity League as the second round of the 2012 FAI Cup kicks off the competition proper.
Though it’s steeped in history — this season will be the 89th running — Ireland’s domestic cup competition is no longer spoken about in the same whispered and reverential tones as its English equivalent.
Come the first weekend in January, it’s impossible for any fan with a passing interest in the cross-channel game to ignore the well-worn cliches about “the magic of the cup”, “giantkilling” and “upsets”. For whatever reason, the modern FAI Cup isn’t worshipped in the same way by supporters and media in Ireland.
Part of it is due to the relative sizes of the competitions — last season’s FA Cup was contested by 825 teams whereas just 40 qualified for the FAI Cup this year. With those reduced numbers and the gap in standards between the Premier Division, First Division and provincial leagues, the potential for dramatic upsets dwindles away.
Last season, we had Mick Wallace’s Wexford Youths trounce Derry in Ferrycarraig Park and Shelbourne shock St Pat’s after a replay in the semis, but the biggest upset in recent memory was subsequently scrubbed from the books after Dubliners Sheriff YC were found to have fielded an ineligible player in their win over Shels.
The early rounds of the FA Cup live and breathe on these upsets but, with a few exceptions, we just don’t see them in Ireland.
Add to that the apathy of the Irish public towards the domestic game in general. Every year without fail, England’s smallest grounds bristle with excitement and expectation, thousands cramming in to support their club against a relative giant of an opponent.
Nearly 4,000 were in Highbury Stadium last season to see Fleetwood Town of the Conference National host Yeovil Town of League One in the second round of the FA Cup. It will take more than a bit of unseasonable May sunshine if any of the 16 fixtures down for decision this weekend are to surpass that mark.
To their credit, the FAI have done an excellent job of marketing the latter stages of the cup. Moving the final back to the Aviva Stadium was a risky move but it paid off instantly when, lured by attractive ticket prices and the promise of a family-friendly atmosphere, 36,000+ filed through the turnstiles for the 2010 decider between Sligo Rovers and Shamrock Rovers.
Numbers were down last year but the 21, 662 who saw Sligo v Shels was still more than the combined attendance for all Premier and First Division fixtures on a regular league weekend.
The product is not as weak as some make it out to be, and the FAI Cup will remain relevant to Irish football for as long as there is a European stake at place and clubs value its place in their trophy cabinet.
But the “magic”, sadly, may be lost and gone forever.
FAI Ford Cup second round fixtures (all Friday, 7.45pm unless stated)
- Bray Wanderers v Shelbourne (Friday, 7.05pm)
- Blarney United v Malahide United
- Bohemian FC v Drumkeen United
- Cork City v Athlone Town
- Derry City v Finn Harps
- Drogheda United v Mayfield United
- Dundalk v St Patrick’s CY
- SD Galway v Mervue United
- Sligo Rovers v Monaghan United
- UCD v Phoenix
- Shamrock Rovers v Limerick FC (Friday, 8pm)
- Kildrum Tigers v Avondale United (Sunday, 1pm)
- Cherry Orchard v Longford Town (Sunday, 2pm)
- Douglas Hall v Wexford Youths (Sunday, 2pm)
- Crumlin United v St Patrick’s Athletic (Sunday, 3pm)
- Everton v Waterford United (Sunday, 3pm)