On foot of my recent conversation in these pages with Damien Richardson on the subject of where the current back-to-back champions and double-chasing Dundalk team might fit into the all-time League of Ireland pantheon, we had a letter from regular reader Tom Hunt in Mullingar pointing out a glaring omission – the great Waterford team of the late 1960s and early 70s which, having won the league in 1966, followed up with a remarkable three-in-a- row between ’68 and ’70, before adding further back-to-back titles in ’72 and ’73.
Over to Tom: “Victories in league competition are always considered to be a greater test of consistency than the less demanding cup competitions. The 1966 title was secured with an extraordinary run of 13 successive victories, a record that survives to the present day. No club before or since has won six titles over an eight-year period. Goals flowed in abundance during the six-title winning spree from teams that included some of the most iconic names to feature in the league. Peter Thomas, Tommy Taylor, Alfie Hale, Johnny Matthews, Jimmy McGeough (whose arrival in Waterford kick-started the 13-game winning run), Mick Lynch, John O’Neil, Dave Kirby, Phil Buck, Denny and Peter Fitzgerald, Al Casey and Vinny Maguire, to name but a few, should never be forgotten when greatness is calibrated.”
Well, what can I do except come out with my hands up, muttering ‘it’s a fair cop, guv’? And I really can have no excuse, considering that, as a young Shamrock Rovers supporter as the 60s morphed into the 70s, I was only too painfully aware at the time of the Blues’ almost impregnable status as league kingpins, with the likes of the brilliant Hale and Matthews the source of far more pain than pleasure at the time to a nipper in thrall to their Hoops counterparts Leech and O’Neill.
Still, on the weekend that’s in it, I hope Tom Hunt will forgive me if, nimbly side-stepping his point about the league counting for most in any assessment of greatness, I propose that there can be no argument whatsoever about the identity of the greatest FAI Cup team of them all – the Shamrock Rovers six-in-a-row legends of the 1960s.
Unless, of course, someone writes in to say ‘but what about the five-in-a-row Hoops side of the ‘30s?’ Which should be enough in itself to tell you that, when it comes to one club and one competition, what we have here is a very special relationship indeed.
Rovers’ first FAI Cup triumph came in 1925 when an invincible side beat Shelbourne 2-1 to add the Cup to the League and Shield – without having lost a single game.
This was the team of the fab ‘Four Fs’ – Bob Fullam, John Joe Flood, Billy ‘Juicy’ Farrell and John ‘Kruger’ Fagan – not to mention other splendidly nicknamed legends of the era, such as William ‘Sacky’ Glen and Dinny ‘Nettler’ Doyle.
But as Sean Ryan notes in his invaluable Official Book Of The FAI Cup, the Milltown club’s “great love affair” with the cup really got going in earnest four years later in 1929 when, having drawn nil-nil in the first game, Rovers beat Dublin rivals Bohemians 3-0 in a replay, in what would prove to be the first of five successive cup triumphs.
The following year, a ‘Hand of God’ goal in the 90th minute by David ‘Babby’ Byrne saw Brideville beaten 1-0 and, twelve months later, in 1931, there was more hand ball controversy after Paddy Moore admitted that he’d punched the ball into the net as the Hoops beat Dundalk 1-0 in a replay.
In 1932, Moore, regarded by many who saw him in his short-lived prime as perhaps the most naturally-gifted Irish striker ever, again scored the only goal, this time against Dolphin, in what was the first Sunday final, before the Hoops completed their remarkable five on the trot with a 3-0 victory over the same opposition the following year.
After that, the cup returned to Milltown in 1936, ’40, ’44, ’45, ’48, ’55, ’56 and ’62, but it was in 1964 that Rovers would begin the process of putting even the club’s own historic achievement in the shade by going one better than their stellar 1930s predecessors and embarking on an unprecendented and still unequalled sequence of six FAI Cup wins in succession.
The run began as, oddly enough, it would end, with Cork Celtic beaten in a replay in 1964. In 1965 and again in ‘66, it was Limerick’s turn to suffer heartbreak at the hands of the Hoops, beaten 2-0.
Rovers’ sense of ownership of the trophy continued for the next three years, as St Pats in ‘67 – in the first final to be televised live – and then Waterford and Cork Celtic all fell to the competition’s masters, the Hoops’ 4-1 win in a replay against Celtic in 1969 bringing their uninterrupted run of winning cup games to an astonishing 32.
By then, my boyhood hero Mick Leech was the star of the show, scoring five times across the finals of 1967, 1968 and 1969, with probably the most celebrated being the brace he grabbed in the 3-0 defeat of arch-rivals Waterford before a massive crowd at Dalymount Park in the ’68 decider.
When I interviewed him in 1993 for The Sunday Press about his career, the man dubbed ‘the Jimmy Greaves of Irish football’ recalled: “They officially returned a figure of 39,000 but they broke the gates down that day so you can assume there were 45,000 in the ground.”
Summing up Rovers’ relationship with the FAI Cup in those days, Mick told me:
”Once the cup came ‘round, the club just lit up. Other clubs would go into special training for the cup but we’d do the opposite and start playing five-a-sides. Other clubs put pressure on themselves but not Rovers.”
In 1969, Cork Celtic might have given the Hoops a fright in the first game, with Rovers requiring a late own goal to draw 1-1 but, in the replay under lights and teeming rain at Dalymount, that 4-1 stroll meant it was back to business as usual. Or so it seemed then.
“It was an accepted thing: we were going to win the cup and that was it,” was how Mick Leech put it.
“So the following year, when we were beaten 2-1 by Shels in the first round at Milltown, it was hard to believe. I remember walking out of the dressing room that day thinking, ‘This can’t be real, we’re not out of the cup’. I just expected us to go on winning it.” In fact, it would be another nine years before the cup returned to Milltown, and there have been only three more successes in the competition since, the last coming as long ago as 1987 when Rovers beat tomorrow’s finalists, Dundalk, 3-0.
Yet, thanks in the largest measure to that bumper haul from the 1920s all the way through to the end of the 60s, Shamrock Rovers have accumulated a grand total of 24 FAI Cup final victories – to this day a whopping 15 more than their nearest challengers in the honour roll, Dundalk, who, should they prevail against Cork City at the Aviva, would be taking their own all-time record to ten.
Here, then, is one debate about footballing greatness in which, history absolutely insists, there can be only one winner, the name written in green and white.