FOR VERY different reasons, tomorrow’s 2007 FAI Ford Cup Final at the RDS represents a last hurrah for both Cork City and Longford Town.
For Longford, whose heroic efforts to avoid the drop were ultimately to no avail, relegation to the second tier means that the Cup Final probably represents a final collective fling for a lot of the players who currently wear the red and black.
For Cork City, the game is seen as the club’s one remaining chance to transform a season of unfulfilled promise into the tangible rewards of European and Setanta Cup football next year.
While Longford have made a remarkable habit of bringing home the silverware in recent years, Cork are still smarting from the manner in which Drogheda United denied them the double at Lansdowne Road two years ago. And the memory of that painful anti-climax to an otherwise momentous season is one of the reasons Damien Richardson is confident his side will get it right this time.
"There is a different atmosphere this time and the players are more experienced too," says the manager. "I’m a great believer in the fact that failure is an essential stepping stone to success. When we failed two years ago, we were distraught, it was an awful experience. When I played with Shamrock Rovers and we won six in a row, it didn’t sate your appetite. When we lost in the cup the following season, there was an awful sense of desolation.
"Success can never satisfy you and failure, actually, is the best incentive of all. We know what we didn’t do last time and it’s up to us to rectify that. We have an opportunity now to do that."
Just as frequently as Cork receive plaudits from purists for being the best football team in the country, so critics will point out that, their league win in 2005 apart, the club has underachieved more often than not in recent years. Richardson reckons the solution to the puzzle is all about strength in depth.
"To win the big games continuously you need a complete squad and I think Drogheda have proven that this season," he says. "They could cover every eventuality. Pats are getting there like that too, they’re better equipped than most. The reality over the last two or three years was that, with big players going at important moments — like Roy (O’Donovan) going this season — it takes time to recover from that. If you don’t have the wherewithal, financial or otherwise, to replace quality players when they go, then you have to improvise and improve the players you’ve got. That takes time and a little bit of understanding.
"I actually think this group of players is not getting the credit they deserve. Because even with the changes made within the club, there was no despondency, no complaining, everybody got on with the job, kept playing to a very high level and kept getting to the big games. The first goal for a club of Cork City’s standing is to be involved in all the big games. We’ve been doing that. The next stage is to win those games, and to do that we need the complete squad, which I’m hoping will be part and parcel of next season."
In the meantime, Richardson will be forced to improvise again tomorrow, with evergreen full back Neal Horgan ruled out through suspension, despite appeals to have his harsh punishment — and, similarly, that of Longford’s Gary Deegan — lifted on compassionate grounds for the Cup Final. Cillian Lordan looks set to deputise for Horgan but Richardson also has concerns elsewhere on the pitch as he sweats on the fitness of striker John O’Flynn, winger Liam Kearney and defender Brian O’Callaghan.
The prolonged build up to the final has been made even more difficult in Cork by the rumbling controversy over contracts, but Richardson is impressed by how his players have retained their focus for tomorrow’s big game.
"There’s no sense in me lying to you, it has been problematic," says Richardson. "Contracts always are and players get worried, just like anyone else. But to the players’ credit we’ve worked very hard together over the last couple of days to delete everything that’s not completely positive to the cause on Sunday afternoon. So it’s not going to influence or dictate anything in any way, I’m quite convinced of that. Players are still willing to push their personal issues aside to perform for the club to the best of their ability. And it’s humbling when you see that kind of attitude."
For Longford Town — who are contesting their third FAI Cup final under manager Alan Matthews after successive triumphs in 2003 and 2004 — there is the prospect of a silver lining to the season’s cloud if they can upset the odds and beat the favourites Cork. Against the backdrop of the club’s own well-publicised financial difficulties throughout the season, Mathews has found group strength in adversity.
"There have been issues all this season and the lads have always reacted well," he says. "As a group, this is the tightest I’ve ever worked with. We’ve always pulled together and I think that will stand to us against Cork."
Adds skipper Damien Brennan: "It was especially hard to accept being relegated because we knew, as a team, we didn’t deserve to go down. But this is a one-off match. And, with our fans backing us at the RDS, we’ll have a tremendous chance of winning the trophy."