Bit O’Red Face Bourne Ultimatum

FAI Ford Cup Final Preview: Sligo Rovers vs Shelbourne

In 2004, Shelbourne were 90 minutes away from the Champions League groups stages. Within three years, the Tolka Park outfit were kicked out of the Premier Division because of crippling debt while Sligo Rovers were cementing their place in the top flight. Now, Sligo are in their third consecutive FAI Cup final and are the defending champions. Shels, who almost went to the wall, have secured promotion back to the Premier Division as runners-up to Cork City. This weekend the sides will be reunited in the Aviva Stadium.

It is a sign of the changing face of Irish football that Shelbourne and Cork have only now, after painstaking rebuilding, returned to the game’s top table.

Two of the main protagonists of full-time professionalism flirted with extinction in recent years but have lived to tell the tale.

Sligo clawed their way from the First Division a few years ago and have slowly developed into one of the top sides in the country with a highly sought-after manager at the helm. Paul Cook was recently courted by St. Johnstone in the SPL but the popular Liverpudlian couldn’t agree terms and will remain at the Showgrounds for the time being at least.

Cook has been a revelation since crossing the Irish sea. His honest appraisal of his team’s performances each week and his amiable nature have been coupled with turning the Bit O’Red into an attractive footballing side.

Shelbourne for their part have continued on the long road back from financial oblivion.

The Tolka Park outfit were Ireland’s version of Leeds United, gambling the future of the club on making the European breakthrough and in the process sending League of Ireland wages sky-rocketing.

The Reds went tantalisingly close to reaching the Champions League when 25,000 saw them hold Deportivo La Coruna scoreless at Lansdowne Road in 2004. A 3-0 defeat in the second leg scuppered their chances and signalled the beginning of the end for the poster boys of Ireland’s fledgling full-time professional football industry.

The tragic passing of Ollie Byrne, who had masterminded Shelbourne’s rise to the top of the Irish game, was a massive blow. Relegation to the First Division was a punishment for completely unrealsitic spending but, similar to their cross-city rivals Shamrock Rovers, Shels have risen from the depths to take their place among the game’s top clubs and cemented their revival by reaching the FAI Cup final.

Last year, we wrote how the FAI Cup could prove to be the saviour of the domestic game. Over 36,000 supporters attended the 2010 decider between Sligo and Shamrock Rovers.

Like the All-Ireland championship, Irish soccer now has a fitting venue worthy of hosting a competition just as rich in history and tradition.

All the indications are that cup fever is rampant in Sligo again this year. The Westerners look set to surpass the numbers they brought to the capital last year, and judging by their semi-final display at Dalymount Park, the followers of the Bit O’Red will create a carnival atmosphere.

What then of Shelbourne?

The truth is Shels could never claim a large fan-base and the numbers have dwindled since relegation. Even when they were competing for championships under Dermot Keely, attendances at Tolka Park hardly swelled. The Drumcondra venue was once the beacon for progression in the domestic game but it has lost its sheen and has fallen into a somewhat state of neglect.

The highest attendance this year was a little over 3200 for the title decider with Cork City last weekend and the vast majority of those were from the southern capital.

However, the supporter ranks did swell when Shels were regularly contesting FAI Cup finals in the last decade and one can only hope those fans rekindle their allegiance this week.

The money has gone out of the League of Ireland and there is little or no focus now on the development of facilities which is why a show-piece in the new Aviva Stadium is even more appealing.

Shelbourne manager Alan Mathews has worked wonders to return the Reds to the top flight. Striker Philly Hughes continues to bang in the goals and they will relish the tag of underdogs against a side that were contenders for the Premier Division title right up to the end of the season.

Sligo are chasing a second successive cup crown to cement their status as the greatest challenge once again to Shamrock Rovers next season.

Will Paul Cook still be at the helm? That answer will have to wait as a much welcomed ground-breaking season for League of Ireland football reaches its conclusion.

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