Sky Sports have put tomorrow’s meeting of Manchester United and Liverpool at the centre of what they are calling ‘Rivalry Weekend’.
For reasons of history and proximity, the clash of the Red Empires has long been its own best advertisement but, since not even the marketing masters can pretend that this latest version will have any bearing on the 2018 title race, the best they can do in the build-up is to to try to suggest that silver is almost as good as gold.
Or as the broadcaster’s promotional blurb puts it: “With second place still very much up for grabs and the duo just one point apart, there will be an added edge this time around.”
Here at home, by contrast, the dominant rivalry of recent years has been all about the battle to lay hands on the most glittering of the prizes, with the result that, even though it’s still early in the season, tonight’s first meeting of the new league campaign between Dundalk and Cork City at Oriel Park requires no hyperbole to enhance its significance.
The edge is intrinsic.
History will ultimately be the judge of where Irish football’s ‘New Firm’ rate in the rivalry stakes, with greybeards like myself acutely conscious of the claims of another great contender, as 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark game in the pulsating rivalry between Waterford and Shamrock Rovers which dominated the 1960s.
Legendary Rovers striker Mick Leech still relishes the memories of an era when the Blues were league kingpins, winning three successive titles and six in total between 1966 and 1973 — while the Hoops were the FAI specialists, claiming an astonishing six successive triumphs from 1964 through to 1969.
“Oh yeah,” he says, “the gates proved that the rivalry was there. Every time we played Waterford in those days the crowds were a minimum of 20,000. For the Cup final in ’68, there was 40,000 in Dalymount.
"For Rovers, it was our fifth final in a row. But, on the other hand, I never won the league with Rovers and in that period the club would have finished runners-up five times to Waterford. So for them it was the opposite: The cup was the holy grail for them.”
Waterford had been installed as favourites but it was Rovers who took the honours again, Leech scoring twice in a 3-0 win.
And it was a widely misinterpreted gesture he made after rounding goalkeeper Peter Thomas to finish off the scoring a couple of minutes from the end, which has dogged him down the years.
“When the third goal went in,” he recalls, “Thommo was lying on the ground and — out of respect for him — I bent over, patted him on the head and said: ‘Hard luck Thommo, your time will come again’.
"And that’s all I said to him. But, unfortunately, people still to this day will say to me: ‘Ah, remember when you rubbed Thommo on the head?’ They thought I was rubbing it in. But I wasn’t.
“I had a great respect for Thommo and I had a good idea of what the cup meant to Waterford. In hindsight, it was probably one of the worst things I ever did because people took the wrong impression out of it.”
Leech observes that, in what was a golden era for League of Ireland football, it wasn’t only the rival claims to silverware of Kilcohan Park and Milltown which kept the huge crowds enthralled.
“Cork Hibs and Waterford had a massive rivalry in my time too. And you could throw Dundalk into the mix as well. There was great rivalry between them and Rovers. My first cup game was against Dundalk in the semi-final in 1967.
"It was a Saturday and there was 20,000 at it. We drew the game and the following Wednesday, in the replay at Tolka Park, I’d say there was 25,000 there.
"The place was bursting at the seams. Dundalk were winning the league that year, they had an exceptionally good team with the like of Ben Hannigan and the famous one-armed Jimmy Hasty. The rivalry was brilliant.”
The Leech legend began in those games against the Lilywhites, the cup debutant scoring in a 1-1 draw and then getting a brace in the 3-0 replay win which put Rovers through to the first televised final, against St Pat’s, where he was again on the mark as the Milltown men claimed the fourth FAI Cup of what would become their historic six-in-a-row.
All these years later, Leech retains a keen interest in the League of Ireland and, as he assesses the latest great rivalry, he can’t help seeing a downside to the recent dominance of Dundalk and Cork City.
“The rivalry has been good for them,” he acknowledges. “For the league? I don’t think so. For the last few years, after about 10 matches you could say that it was Dundalk and then it was Cork who were going to win the league.
"Look at the Premier League at the minute, and Manchester City running away with it has sort of killed the interest in it. The matches that mean the most are when Crystal Palace are playing Manchester United because Palace need points to survive.
"That’s what’s keeping the game alive over there.
“Here, the way Cork have started again, it’s already hard to see them being pegged back. And the last thing you’d want to see this season, from the league’s point of view, is Cork start to pull away because then what are the rest fighting for?
“Okay, I’m a Rovers fan but I’d love to see them challenging. Or Pat’s. Or if the likes of Limerick or Waterford or Sligo came into it. I’d like to see teams beating each other so there’s only a few points between them.
"The first night of the season with Bohs against Rovers and Cork at Pat’s you had big crowds at both games. Same for Cork against Waterford in the second match. But if one team starts running away with it, people start to lose interest.”
He might still be a Hoop at heart but, for the good of the league he still loves, Mick Leech would like to see more than a two horses going neck to neck in the race to the finish line.
“If you could spread the rivalries it would be great,” he concludes. “It would mean that you’re spreading the gospel around the place.”
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