Football’s showroom of romance

Romance was in the air at Ford’s showrooms in Sandyford, Dublin on Tuesday but, despite the gleaming array of new and vintage motors on display, that special tingle had nothing to do with the lure of the open road or the magic in the night that Springsteen had in mind back when him and Mary were “pullin’ outta here to win”.

Football’s showroom of romance

Nope, this was the romance of the cup, a notion which can struggle to escape the realm of cliché until the presence of living links with the storied past brings it all back to glorious life again.

Such was the case on Tuesday as the competition’s current sponsor Ford launched its quest to find the Greatest Ever FAI Cup Final, with a host of League of Ireland legends turning up at the event to renew old acquaintances and wallow in the memory of some of the most celebrated games in the history of domestic football.

The shortlist of 10 finals ranges from Bohemians edging out Dundalk in a classic seven-goal thriller way back in 1935 to the 2010 decider between Sligo Rovers and Shamrock Rovers which, despite ending scoreless, earned its own immortality through the penalty shoot-out heroics of Sligo keeper Ciaran Kelly.

Kelly was there to talk us through it all again on Tuesday, as just one of a stellar cast of Irish football greats representing nearly 60 years of FAI Cup history, with Gerry Mackey and Ronnie Nolan of Shamrock Rovers and Jimmy Murphy of Cork Athletic among the veterans on hand to recall the epic 1956 final when Cork — with a club director already off buying the champagne — saw their two-goal lead turned on its head by Rovers in the dying minutes.

As a later Hoops cup winner Damien Richardson put it: “The cup final is all about the memories you carry away, some of elation, some of depression. That’s the beauty of the cup.”

Johnny Matthews would readily concur. One of the star attractions of the great Waterford side of the mid-’60s to early ’70s, he finished his career with seven league medals (one with Limerick) but with nothing to show for two appearances for the Blues in the final of FAI Cup.

On both occasions, 1968 and 1972, Waterford lost 3-0 to, respectively, Shamrock Rovers and Cork Hibs, the latter game — always remembered for Miah Dennehy’s hat-trick — one of the 10 shortlisted for Ford’s ultimate accolade.

“Rovers, Waterford and Cork Hibs were the big teams at the time,” Johnny told me. “Rovers, of course, were the cup specialists but, as I remember it, even when we were winning titles, most of the time we rarely beat the top sides in the league. We’d hold our own against Rovers, Hibs and Dundalk but we always had the knack of beating the Brays, the Shelbournes and the Drumcondras, whereas Rovers would drop points against them.

“And we did have a phenomenal forward line at the time: Alfie Hale, John O’Neill, Seamie Coad, the late Al Casey and myself. Funnily enough, the biggest guy in that forward line, at 5ft 7ins, was probably me. I always felt we played good attractive football. Okay, we might let in two or three or even four but we were always capable of scoring four or five.

“Of course, it was heartbreaking to lose a cup final, but when you look back you just remember them as such special occasions. There was always that sea of blue and white — flags and balloons — as the cars drove up the Naas Road. As bad as it is losing in a final, it’s twice as bad to lose in a semi-final because you haven’t been to the ultimate venue — which in those days was Dalymount Park. That was our Wembley and being there meant you were one of the two best sides in the country on that particular day.”

And if Johnny had to nominate his greatest ever final, which would it be?

“I definitely would be biased,” he smiled. “The reason the ’72 final against Hibs stands out is that I honestly believe we were the two best footballing sides in the country that year. I think proving that is the fact that the two teams competing in the final were first and second in the league. We’d just won the league in Flower Lodge the week before so the cup was sweet revenge for Hibs.”

As Sligo Rovers and Cork City, and Longford Town and Drogheda United, prepare to go at it in the cup today, we wait to see if this year’s final will merit its own special inclusion in the honour roll.

Meanwhile, by accessing facebook.com/fordireland, you can vote for your choice of greatest ever FAI Cup Final to date from the following shortlist of 10:2010 Sligo Rovers 0 Shamrock Rovers 0 (2-0 pens); 2008 Bohemians 2 Derry City 2 (4-2 pens); 2006 Derry City 4 St Patrick’s Athletic 3;1996 Shelbourne 2 St Patrick’s Athletic 1;1990 Bray Wanderers 3 St Francis 0;1984 UCD 2 Shamrock Rovers 1;1983 Sligo Rovers 2 Bohemians 1; 1972 Cork Hibernians 3 Waterford 0; 1956 Shamrock Rovers 3 Cork Athletic 2; and 1935 Bohemians 4 Dundalk 3.

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