The Setanta Cup, for those of you not overly familiar with club football in Ireland, has been in existence since 2005 and is sponsored by the TV Sports company. The competition is played between clubs from North and South of the border and since its inception in 2005, Northern teams have won it twice: Linfield in its inaugural year and Crusaders, the current holders. The other five champions have been from the South: Drogheda United (twice), Cork City, Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers.
By Phelim Warren – @freewheeler12
So this year’s second round pitted Ireland’s most successful clubs, Shamrock Rovers and Linfield together in the two-legged format, with the first leg at Rovers’ home ground at Tallaght Stadium.
The last time Rovers and Linfield met was in the (then) European Cup in 1984 when tensions were still very high politically and this tie led to a huge security operation in both legs. Shamrock Rovers fans were given no tickets for the 1st leg in Belfast’s Windsor Park (that said, a hardy few did get their hands on tickets but kept a pretty low profile), while Shamrock Rovers did allocate tickets to Linfield for the second leg in Rovers’ then home ground at Milltown. After a 1st leg scoreless draw in Belfast, Shamrock Rovers were favourites to advance but plucky Linfield ruined the home supporters day as the game finished 1-1 and the Northerners went through on away goals.
So last night’s Setanta Cup clash was very much eagerly awaited by those Rovers fans old enough to remember the 1984 disappointment and again security would be tight as old hatred and bitterness still die-hard with sections of both sides of the support. Irish Gardai were taking no chances with a sizeable presence and roads adjacent to Tallaght Stadium closed off until well after the Linfield fans had departed.
As the teams took to the pitch last night, verbal insults filled the crisp night sky as Rovers fans sang “There’s only one flag in Ireland” and Linfield fans replied with “Rule Britannia”. It was notable that many of the more vociferous singers were young lads who probably were only babies in arms (or possibly not even born at all) when the controversial Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, but it was obvious these young fellas had been following history lessons and current affairs and made sure to let the other side know of their mutual disdain. I was only there to watch a football match.
Rovers tore into Linfield from the off, forcing five corners in the opening 3 minutes with Linfield goalkeeper Glendinning looking uncertain and shaky from Seán O’Connor’s quality deliveries. This was only Shamrock Rovers fourth competitive game of the newborn season so their early tempo was full of intent, freshness and hunger, while Linfield’s relatively disappointing Irish League season (currently third, 14 points behind leaders Cliftonville) seemed to be on the visitors’ minds as they failed utterly in the early stages to match Rovers’ intensity.
Linfield however probably had the best chance after early exchanges as McCaul cleared the bar with a shot from 12 yards when under no real pressure he should have done better. Rovers punished that miss shortly after to take the lead. Seán O’Connor’s low free kick from the edge of the penalty area saw Glendinning save but he parried right into Ronan Finn’s path and the midfielder couldn’t really miss from 6 yards out to send the home fans into delight.
Rovers really took over for the remaining 15 minutes of the half. Reading’s on-loan striker Karl Sheppard (who Reading signed from Rovers in 2011) forced Glendinning into a panicky save that clipped the crossbar and in the ensuing scramble, Rovers’ Shane Robinson was twice denied and Linfield somehow scrambled the ball clear. Rovers weren’t to be denied again before half time however. The superb Finn dinked a cross to the far post and centre forward Ciarán Kilduff headed past Glendinning from close range. Half time, Shamrock Rovers 2, Linfield 0 and the Hoops were having a half-time party.
Linfield emerged from a probable roasting from Manager David Jeffrey (whose away goal for Linfield in the 1984 clash had been the difference) and had by far the better of the opening 15 minutes of the 2nd half and a cracking shot from Billy Joe Burns beat Rovers keeper Barry Murphy all ends up to reduce the arrears. The home side however rallied from that wake up call and Kilduff restored the two goal lead on 73 minutes when former Hamilton Accies player James Chambers caught Linfield out with a quickly taken free to Pat Sullivan whose pass was stroked home by Kilduff. Linfield’s misery was almost completed in the 83rd minute when the rampant Kilduff released Rovers sub Stephen Rice and he easily beat Glendinning from 15 yards unchallenged.
Linfield’s final misery was yet to come. In the 90th minute, referee Neil Doyle awarded a dubious enough penalty for an alleged transgression by Jason McGuinness and what followed was farce. Brian McCaul took the kick but as he took the kick, his team-mate Ryan Henderson had encroached to a staggering degree, so much so he almost took the kick himself! McCaul’s weak effort was saved by Murphy but from 6 yards out and a gaping goal, Henderson somehow missed the target by a good yard and Linfield fans held their collective heads in their hands as Rovers fans fell about laughing. So Rovers go to Windsor Park next week with a 4-1 lead and one foot in the next round.
Rovers atoned for 1984 in some style while David Jeffrey bemoaned his team’s “footballing suicide” afterwards. Amid much shape-throwing and verbals after the final whistle, Linfield fans attempted to hoist the Union Flag on one of the flagpoles beside the corner where they were assembled. Some Rovers “fans” attempted to get at them, but thankfully all petered out and the night passed off relatively peacefully. How peaceful the Linfield dressing room was, however, is open to debate and the South’s League of Ireland clubs claimed a hat trick of wins on the night, with holders Crusaders going out to Cork City and Glentoran suffering a 5-0 reverse at current League of Ireland Champions Sligo Rovers.
It looks odds-on that there will be a sixth Southern victory out of eight in this tournament and wherever the future lies for the Setanta Cup, or an all-Ireland league, last night’s match at Tallaght was a much-needed shot in the arm for the competition in terms of attendance, atmosphere and action on the park. The verbals, flag-waving and political chants belong to another era and it is to be hoped they remain there.
Would an all-Ireland league be a good idea? Could both North and South combine to the better of Irish football? Give us your thoughts @talkingbaws or comment below.