When Ronan Finn mentions that he’s “coming up on 32,” the symmetry is irresistible: Shamrock Rovers have been trying to win the FAI Cup all his life.
The Hoops skipper was born in December 1987, just months after Rovers last won the trophy with which they had been for so long synonymous, beating Dundalk 3-0 at Dalymount Park.
And ahead of Sunday’s re-run of that game, Finn, now in his second spell at the club, understands better than most what it would mean to end that drought.
“Personally, it would be massive,” he says “That’s motivation in itself. Captaining Rovers to their first cup success since 1987 would be huge. You’d write yourself into the history books straight away. Playing for this club, the pressure is huge. I noticed that as soon as I signed back, in 2017. No disrespect to UCD, because I absolutely love the club, it was so good to me. And (Sporting) Fingal was different; Fingal was a start-up company, almost. But, at Rovers, you noticed it from day one. I remember playing in a friendly against Waterford. It was my first home game and I was, like, ‘I’m at a proper football club now. This is what it’s about’.
“And nothing has changed. That pressure of stepping onto that pitch every Friday, you feel it. And you feel it when it’s not going well, too; you feel that frustration from the fans. Listen, it’s such a big club. They demand success. You see how much the cup means to them. You understand that this is big. I’m sure fans on Saturday night will have a sleepless night. They get nervous. As players, we are a different sort of nervous, because we are in control. They are not.”
But, of course, the players are never in total control, because, as Finn discovered playing for Dundalk in the 2015 and 2016 finals, what the cup giveth, it can also taketh away.
“Both were against Cork, two years in a row, so it was from one high to the absolute lowest of the low,” he says. “Before that, winning cup finals was something that I knew nothing about. That was my first one. People always used to say to me how good cup final day is and you never understand it until you are there.
“Players gone by who have done it try to explain what it’s like to play in a cup final, but it’s a magical moment, a magical day in your career, something that you remember.
“But, listen, you remember the defeats, as well. You take that hurt and that loss and use it as motivation, in that you don’t want to go down that road again.” As one who went from Rovers to Dundalk and back again, the midfielder-turned-wing-back is well-placed to assess how close Stephen Bradley’s team are to challenging the domestic dominance of the Lilywhites.
“The difference, since I’ve come back, in 2017, to now, is huge, in terms of quality in the dressing room,” he says.
“If you are not at it in training, you are found out straight away. Training games are as hard as any game you play on Friday — harder, sometimes, in terms of the levels of technical skill that some of the players possess. It’s superior to what I have ever seen in any dressing room.
“People like Jack (Byrne) and Graham (Burke) can do things that I’ve probably never seen an individual player do. That real, technical, seeing-a-pass-that-no-one-else-can-see... I didn’t know how good Jack was, but I know how good he is now. Or Graham shooting from 25 yards, consistently putting it past the ’keeper. That individual talent is clearly evident.
“At Dundalk, Stephen (Kenny) was the manager, but a lot of it was player-driven. There was a good group of pros there.
“Stevie (O’Donnell) was there, Brian Gartland. There was a good, experienced core there. Similarly enough, our dressing room is full of players like Joey O’Brien and Alan Mannus — these are full internationals. Joey has played a hell of a lot of games in the Premier League and Championship.
“Sean Kavanagh has played in the Championship, Graham Burke has played in the Championship, Jack has played in the Championship. There is an array of talent that we have in the dressing room. Coming back in as captain, maybe at the start the group wasn’t as strong as it is now. Now, if you look around the dressing room, we’ve got a lot of leaders there.
“Again, we need to showcase all that on Sunday.”
For all the obvious progress at Rovers, they still came up short in the league, finishing eleven points behind Sunday’s treble-chasing opponents. Does that make the cup final a season-defining game for the Hoops?
“I think that’s fair to say,” says Finn. “Football is like that. Maybe that’s a fair comment. If you are going to be critical, you need silverware. We know that; we are building towards that. So, yeah, potentially, we win the cup on Sunday, you go, ‘right, we finished second, we won the cup, let’s build and let’s keep going for next season’.”
And if Rovers don’t prevail on Sunday?
“I’m not thinking like that. You prepare to win.”