Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Very Irish Cup Final

The weather conditions invoked fantasies of coddle, stew, boiled bacon and cabbage. This was not the face of modern Ireland with its panninis, ciabattas and cheeses - the mere fact that the conditions were influential underscores the Irishness of this Cup Final.

Of course those who proclaimed that this must be the time and the place were sitting in the nice covered area with, no doubt, lashings and lashings of latte macchiatos on stream. All around them lay the unholy trinity of uncovered areas populated with hardened football fans, parfrozen, pre-soaked. It was so cold, even the plastic seats were blue. Definitely not the kind of conditions conducive to sellout crowds - neither Ford nor the FAI can be held responsible for the prevailing barometric pressure - Dalymount Park would have provided greater protection from the elements for the hardy faithful - we ought to know better than to expect favourable weather in December.

Cork City chose the occasion to unveil their all-new stripeless strip, replete with all-new crest; a crest depicting a vessel sailing into shelter, or out, into waters choppy? The minute's silence in memory of Longford Town's longstanding President- the late Peter Keenan - was impeccably observed as kick-off approached. Both sides fielded much as anticipated; the only surprise being Gareth Farrelly's omission from the right side of Cork's midfield in favour of Leon McSweeney. Prematch fitness doubts surrounding Brian O'Callaghan, John O'Flynn and Liam Kearney had evaporated - the appeals against the suspensions of Gary Deegan and Neal Horgan fell on hard hearts. Deegan's absence presented Daire Doyle with a start in the underdogs' engine room. Cillian Lordan replaced Horgan.

On the line was the previously contentious prizemoney of €100k for the victors; €75k for the vanquished; and European football next season. Cork City's build-up had been fractious to say the least; a river of stories relating to player unrest over contracts and the possible departure of Damien Richardson provided a possible opportunity for Longford to steal ahead.

Perhaps it was with this in mind that the relegated side began so forcefully. Wind-assisted, they took the contest to City from kick off. Daire Doyle pummelled in to dispossess Joe Gamble from the tip off; Town's No.6 was involved again seconds later as part of the move which saw Baker flick the ball on to Mooney. The striking duo made O'Callaghan and defensive leader Dan Murray look ponderous at times during the early exchanges. Clearly, this pairing was key to the scant chance of success for Longford.

That said, at the other end of the arena Kevin Doherty and shay Kelly got themselves into a mess with Denis Behan lurking - luckily the ball was scuffed to safety. With eleven minutes gone Damien Brennan crossed the halfway line to deliver a high ball into the opposing penalty area - Lordan was lax in letting Baker slip in ahead of him, but the defender's blushes were spared by the striker's poor connection. A couple of minutes later Mooney was prominent as Baker set up Doyle, but Mick Devine was equal to his effort. With the quarter hour mark approaching the Cork netminder reacted superbly to thwart Jamie Duffy as Alan Matthews' men pressed hard.

Wily Billy Woods took the opportunity afforded him to rebuke Duffy soon after and was fortunate not to see yellow for his challenge. Mark Rutherford, Robbie Martin and Doyle were operating at maximum power to deny the vaunted Cork midfield time and space; and enjoying much success. After about twenty five minutes we saw the first signs of mental fatigue from the part-timers: City were beginning to put passes together but had not yet found enough rhythm to retain possession.

Devine was slowing the game down at every kick out as the favourites controlled their ambition. There was an injury scare for Baker when Joe Gamble challenged him in that fair but solid fashion beloved of hardworking footballers. With the 30 minute signpost in the near distance, Lordan sent a hopeful ball forward. Two Longford defenders got up close and unreliable with the clearance ricocheting off Kevin Doherty; Shay Kelly blocked Behan's effort before the ball dropped to the unmarked Kearney. Kelly was in land were no goalkeeper should be as the half-litre sized winger weighed up the situation. He dallied too long before attempting a cross for the inrushing O'Flynn and the chance was wasted.

Explanations had not yet been collected from the defenders when Colin Healy released Behan. Pat Sullivan was alert enough to block the blocky striker for the game's first corner and cork were beginning to find that rhythm. The opening corner was promptly followed by Cork's second. Longford's nervous moments abated temporarily when they won their opening corner seven minutes before the break - Baker's delivery was poor. Ominously for the Town, Joe Gamble was becoming a more prominent figure in the contest; his efforts were leading to the enhancement of Healy's input and the break could not come soon enough for Alan Matthews. His side had another narrow escape from McSweeney's free -kick - the ball dropped to O'Callaghan deep in enemy territory; Kelly raced to smother the potential danger, not realising the Cork centre-half had been ruled offside.

So it was scoreless at the break, but the elements were in Cork's favour for the second forty-five ; even the tide was. Longford's failure to score while in the ascendancy would surely unseat their challenge, while their intensity had dropped sufficiently to allow Cork time and space - surely a bad thing. There was little scope on the red & black bench for further influencing the game and the part-timers were sure to wilt as the game wore on.

Cup finals in December are not usually frequented by streakers; this was to be no exception. We were treated to the sight of crumpled flags making their bid for freedom - purple fingers no longer able to retain their grip on the green and white, red and black plastic, as it streaked across the playing area.

The second half opened just as the first had; only roles were reversed. This time it was Gamble who pounced to win possession for his side from Longford's tip-off. Straight away el Rico's charges were on the offensive and Kelly didn't have time to get cold in the Longford goal before he was called upon to make a save. Less than three minutes into the new half Robbie Martin looked to have played his last part in the 2007 Cup Final. While he lay on the sideline receiving treatment Woods flashed a free kick across the delicate area between defender and goalkeeper; neither branch made contact as the ball passed dangerously close to Kelly's back post. While Martin was receiving the rub of the relic Dessie Baker began to signal to the sideline. The striker was withdrawn, replaced by midfielder Ian Wexler. Robbie Martin rose again and was asked to partner Mooney up front - gallant and heroic, but not 100% - he did not shirk the challenge.

Cork were finally beginning to dominate in the wide areas of the RDS; the poor quality of delivery was offering Longford a stay of execution though. The men in red & lack were struggling to cross the equator; rare breaks offered rarer respite as wave upon wave of white set sail for Kelly's goal. Captain Dan delivered a ball from deep within his own half. Damien Brennan and John O'Flynn took off in pursuit - Johno's lower mileage showing as he arrived just ahead of the industrious Brennan. Little did the Town's skipper realise that all was not well back at base.

Central defence's second in command, Officer Kevin Doherty was indulging himself in a momentary lapse of concentration. Denis Behan wasn't prepared to wait for Doherty to return to the game, so he set off towards the opposition goalmouth. O'Flynn prospered down the left, well enough to deliver a knee-high cross into Limerick (aka 'the danger area'). Behan arrived - pursued by Sean Prunty who had abandoned his post in favour of the pursuit - launching himself with all the grace a man of his bulk can muster, he met the ball perfectly and the rain fell from Kelly's net. 1-0 to CCFC, with half an hour outstanding.

The aforementioned Brennan was making headway down City's port side three minutes later; Billy Woods injured himself in the act of halting Brennan's progress- he returned briefly to the action, but succumbed to the pain moments later. Colin O'Brien replaced Lordan at right-back; the latter switched to the left. It was one-way traffic now; Cork were flowing freely, like mid morning buses in a bus lane, towards Kelly's goal. Not that they were busting a gut to score another goal; City were strangling the game. Longford looked forlorn, bereft of hope and ingenuity. If they were to level it would have to be from a deadball situation. One such scenario was played out in the 75th minute; bizarrely it was the country's top scorer Dave Mooney who swung in the corner kick. A minute later Doherty was carded - O'Callaghan's free kick was memorable for it's lack of quality. Jamie Duffy was replaced; nothing changed.

Gamble released McSweeney, his cutback is marginally behind Behan who eventually assembles himself to shoot high into the roof of the net - only it's too high and the crossbar bends with the ferocity of the impact. Eight minutes to go and Sullivan is the second Townman to be carded as frustration begins to take a hold. Six minutes remaining; this time Kearney exploits Longford's right flank - Johno is next to rattle the bar; probably not for the last time that evening. Farrelly is seconded to the right side of midfield; Cork are pulling the shutters down. Robbie Martin makes a late dash for that last pint er, goal; his brave legs cannot carry him quickly enough and the opportunity is lost. Three minutes left; Mooney ends his Longford career with a woeful corner kick, surely his side's last chance. The last minute of regulation time - Pat Sullivan dismisses himself; Dave McKeon confirms the defender's interpretation of events.

It's all over. But the battle continues for Cork City's playing staff - their victory a bi-fingered salute to the faceless enemy.

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