Dundalk captain Stephen O'Donnell after last year's final. (Pic: Ciarán Culligan)
Referred to as “the trilogy” by Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny, The Lilywhites and Cork City will create another piece of Irish football history at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
For the third season in a row, the country’s established top two teams will lock horns in the November showpiece, and, in many ways, it could have a decisive bearing over the next turn the rivalry takes.
With one win apiece, the victor of Sunday’s contest will hold the added satisfaction of winning the marathon, despite succumbing in one of the sprints. And recent history would suggest that the winners of the Cup get something of a bounce moving into the following season.
While Dundalk’s beginning to the 2016 season entailed some stutters in comparison to their blitzing start a year earlier – with two defeats to Cork City and a draw with Derry City included early on – they still cruised somewhat to the league title.
Cork’s league triumph this term is evidence of what a Cup win can do for team. Not only did they prevail in the domestic race, but they mirrored Dundalk’s relentless early campaign run of 2015 in having the league all but won by the mid-season interval.
The FAI Cup may have no direct relevance to the league, though it’s evident the winners in November – provided they remain together – have something extra come February/March, while the losers begin with a chip on their shoulder. Having finished as runners-up in 2016, it’s not entirely accurate to say that Dundalk had an axe to grind this season – after all they were chasing the four-in-a-row – though one felt they had a point to prove against The Rebels.
Furthermore, in contrast to the other managers, Kenny’s recent record against John Caulfield is weaker than he may like. Only one of the last nine meetings since the beginning of the 2016 campaign has been won by the Dubliner – a record turned on its head when you compare their first seven duels across the 2014-15 seasons.
Kenny’s men won five – including the first four in succession - and drew two of the battles. He seemed to hold a tactical hex on Caulfield despite fielding largely the same team against The Leesiders on every meeting.
The hallmark of Kenny’s Dundalk has been their ability to produce when under the most scrutiny. They were the better team in last season’s Cup final, out-performing the well-rested Rebels less than 48 hours after returning from their Europa League encounter with Zenit in Russia.
The big players like Stephen O’Donnell and particularly Ronan Finn stood out, Dundalk will require a similar dosage from Robbie Benson – who missed last season’s final through injury, David McMillan and O’Donnell this time around.
There is no doubting that Cork’s success last year entailed a portion of luck and good fortune, something which The Lilywhites are perhaps due when you consider their shortcomings in knockout competition over the last 18 months.
They got no luck in their Europa League campaign with injuries, the fixtures calendar or individual errors. They cruelly came up short in the FAI Cup final. The league this season saw them endure the worst possible start in terms of squad availability.
In July’s European fixture, they ought to have had Rosenborg out of sight and then when poised to go 2-0 ahead in the away leg, an incredible goal line intervention prevented McMillan’s header. Lady luck is due to shine on Dundalk one would think.
Paul McLaughlin’s appointment as referee to Sunday’s match should inspire some positivity as neither Dave McKeon (2015) nor Rob Rogers (2016) took a strict enough stance when it came to Cork’s physicality, particularly in last season’s final where both Alan Bennett and Greg Bolger took their challenges more than a tad over the limit in the first-half.
It should also be said that Seán Maguire’s winning goal saw him shunt Finn in the back – a free out being the just course of action, though Rogers allowed the goal to stand. But on McLaughlin’s past, he’s a highly attentive referee. He took strong charge of the semi-final replay with Shamrock Rovers, something which he merits credit for.
The attendance on Sunday ought to equal or surpass the 30,000 barrier and one expects them to witness a triumph for Kenny, and an eleventh FAI Cup crown for Dundalk.