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Dublin: 17 °C Saturday 21 September, 2019

Cobh Ramblers' underdog run reminds us why the EA Sports Cup is worth loving

A coin-toss shouldn’t decide the venue for a national final, writes John O’Sullivan.

Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

A FEW YEARS back, I tweeted my belief that the EA Sports Cup was an unloved competition in the middle of an already-packed fixture schedule and that the FAI should consider discontinuing it to drop out a few midweek fixtures.

I wanted to rip the competition out of existence to save the inconvenience and cost of a few Tuesday night games.

My stance at the time was motivated by the memory of opening up the 26,000-capacity Thomond Park for less than 200 people on a Tuesday night when Limerick – who I worked for – hosted Waterford United in the competition in 2013. One of the most surreal nights I’ve ever had in sport, it felt like playing a game behind closed doors, such was the lack of interest.

Alan Kelly was refereeing that night and I could hear every single scolding. The game went to penalties which meant we had to pay extra for the security that night and despite the shoot-out win, the cost of the night overpowered any excitement about a cup run.

One of the people who responded to my ‘Ban the EA sports Cup’ tweet to disagree with me was Cobh Ramblers manager Stephen Henderson who made a point I hadn’t considered: that – particularly for First Division Clubs – the EA Sports Cup was a means for a club to build momentum, draw a big home game to help funds, and to get supporters engaged in the competition.

As with most of his LOI opinions, Hendo was bang on the money. I’d let my memory of the Thomond Park experience cloud earlier positive memories of the competition, particularly winning the League Cup at home to Shamrock Rovers in front of a packed Turner’s Cross.

How I want to remember Cork City’s winning goal that day and how it actually happened can remain polar opposites. I have no desire to ruin my – likely incorrect – memory of Noel Hartigan scoring a spectacular volley at the end of wonderful and spectacular free-flowing passing up the right wing.

No, YouTube links featuring the actual goal will not be appreciated.

Of course, when Cobh Ramblers beat Dundalk in this year’s semi-final – deservedly, according to everyone there – Hendo’s thoughts on the competition were only confirmed.

Stephen Christopher, Liam Cronin and Adam Mylod celebrate after the game Cobh Ramblers' Stephen Christopher, Liam Cronin and Adam Mylod celebrate beating Dundalk in the EA Sports Cup semi-final. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Cobh’s run had kept their fans coming back in a season where they fell a little short as they chased the First Division play-off spots. A huge crowd watched the semi-final win and the scenes at the final whistle were joyous, with even Dundalk fans forced to concede that. (They’ve won enough to be fair, they can give this one up.)

Cobh’s opponents would be Derry City and herein begins the problem with the EA Sports Cup. A coin-toss would decide whether Derry or Cobh would have to travel the 900km round-trip into hostile territory for a cup final.

Derry won the toss and it’s the Brandywell – soon to be renamed the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium – which will host Sunday’s final. Ramblers fans will have to literally travel to the opposite end of the island to play in their first national senior cup final. Now, Derry had to travel to Turner’s Cross in 2011 for the EA Sports Cup final and won, so they’ve had to put in the long journeys in the past.

It will still be a great occasion. The buzz in Cobh this week has been brilliant and they’ll bring a crowd. The Brandywell looks fantastic on TV since the renovation of the stadium and eir will once again carry the final, their 13th (across the different guises from the Setanta Sports days) with Irish international James McClean — a former Derry player and lifelong Derry fan — on pundit duty.

The prize money will mean a lot to both clubs even though Derry themselves won’t see any takings from the gate. As it’s a final, the FAI run the show, even if it is a game at the Brandywell.

A view of the match ball The Brandywell Stadium will play host to this year's EA Sports Cup Final. Source: Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

It is though, a national cup final and you have to ask if a neutral venue, which would have split the difference in travel between the two clubs, would have added to the occasion.

You may well have lost out on Derry City support (though history has shown how well they travel for cup competitions) but I think you would have gained some additional Cobh followers and neutrals if the game had been played in Tallaght, for example. I think it is something the FAI need to look at for future years.

I can’t pretend to be impartial, I’ll be rooting for the underdog and for Hendo. I’d love to be there to experience it.

If it had been in a neutral venue, I might have been there.

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