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From standing on the terraces at Oriel Park to chasing a Cork double at Dundalk's expense

Loyalties will be split among the McCormack family for this afternoon’s FAI Cup final at the Aviva Stadium.

FOR A SMALL section of the thousands of spectators who’ll make their way down the M1 today from Louth towards the Aviva Stadium, there’ll be a dilemma to contend with when the FAI Cup final between Dundalk and Cork City kicks off at 3.30pm.

Although he earned his footballing education in the Dundalk Schoolboys League, Cork is where Conor McCormack now earns his living. There’ll be no divided loyalties for the City midfielder this afternoon. For his family, the situation is more complicated.

Conor McCormack Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“There are buses coming down and there’ll be a mix of support for both teams. Most of them will be supporting Dundalk, whereas my closer family will be behind me. Obviously my friends, my cousins and my uncles will all be cheering for Dundalk because they’re from there and they’ve been going to the matches for years,” McCormack explains.

“There’d be a few Snapchats flying back and forth, especially from my cousin. He’s a die-hard Dundalk fan, he travelled all over Europe with them last year. There’s a bit of friendly banter there but hopefully I can come out on top and I can slag them for a while.”

Hailing from Carlingford, 25 kilometres north-east of Dundalk, McCormack stood on the terraces at Oriel Park with his father before he moved to England at the age of 16 to join the youth set-up at Manchester United.

“My dad used to take me to the games,” he recalls. “He was good friends with John Whyte, who’s a Dundalk legend. I have a lot of memories from back then, like Dundalk winning the FAI Cup [in 2002] against Stephen Kenny’s Bohs in the final.”

Inflicting more FAI Cup final heartbreak on Stephen Kenny is the aim for McCormack and his Cork City team-mates this afternoon at Lansdowne Road. The 27-year-old has endured losses and red cards against the Lilywhites in the past, but City have had the upper hand over their rivals throughout 2017 — McCormack’s debut season on Leeside.

Tasked with shielding his defence and breaking up the opposition’s attacks, McCormack has excelled as a holding midfielder for his new club. Some of his best performances have come against Stephen Kenny’s side, with McCormack succeeding in nullifying the influence of Dundalk playmaker Patrick McEleney.

Patrick McEleney and Conor McCormack Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Were it not for the goalscoring brilliance of Sean Maguire, who has become an Ireland international since leaving Cork City for Preston North End in July, McCormack may well have been the favourite for the 2017 PFAI Player of the Year award.

Having started on the bench for St Patrick’s Athletic in their victory over Derry City in the 2014 FAI Cup final, he’s likely to be one of the game’s key players this afternoon. That’s an indication of how far he’s come in the meantime.

“It is,” agrees McCormack, who was brought to the League of Ireland in 2011 by Michael O’Neill. He played under the current Northern Ireland boss for the Shamrock Rovers side that reached the Europa League group stages, before moving on to Pat’s, then Derry, and now Cork.

“I always believed in my ability. At a couple of the clubs I played for I was away from my best position and they didn’t get the best out of me. But in the last couple of years I’ve come into my own.

“Up in Derry I played in the number six role and we had a good season. John [Caulfield, Cork City manager] has played me there as well this year and it really suits me. I think that’s where you get the best out of me — holding the fort and letting the more attacking players get forward to do their business.

“If things break down you need someone there to protect the back four. There has to be a balance of pushing on while also keeping it safe defensively. I’m very happy with how the season has gone, from a team perspective and personally as well.”

Conor McCormack celebrates scoring Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He adds: “When Michael O’Neill first brought me into the league six years ago, Rovers had just won the league and they’d been in the cup final as well. There are similarities between that team and this Cork team, and between the two managers as well. Everything is based on working hard and getting results.”

As a local lad playing for the opposition, McCormack has unsurprisingly been a prime target for the taunts of Dundalk supporters over the years. But with three wins and a draw in the four games he’s played against the Lilywhites for Cork City — not to mention having a hand in ending their reign as Premier Division champions — the Oriel Park faithful are running low on ammunition.

“I get a bit of stick all the time, especially for getting sent off against them, but after beating them this year it’s nice to have a bit of ammo to throw back,” McCormack laughs. “I don’t mind it at all. To be fair, there’s a lot of positive stuff too with some of their fans asking if I’ll go back and play for them. It’s all good.”

If Dundalk supporters are hoping to eventually see McCormack in a white shirt, they’ll need to be patient. His decision to sign a two-year contract extension with Cork City last week may prove to be John Caulfield’s most important move ahead of next season.

“When John rang me in the off-season last year I was only happy to come down,” McCormack says. “I wanted to play a few games in Europe and challenge to win the league. We’ve ticked those boxes now so winning the cup as well would be a brilliant way to finish it off.

“Hopefully we can continue that into next season. This club is going places and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

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Paul Dollery

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