Shamrock Rovers have won the FAI Cup for the first time in 32 years. Jack Byrne was the difference.
This time last year, Jack Byrne was an unused substitute as Kilmarnock lost 2-1 to Aberdeen in front of 5,200 fans at Rugby Park. The Dubliner would leave the club two months later after making just five appearances. Fed up with football, Byrne returned home to his mother’s house in Ballybough and signed for Shamrock Rovers. Irish domestic football has rehabilitated him.
He’s now an international, arguably the most creative midfielder in Mick McCarthy’s squad, and a talisman for Rovers. He has been the best player in Ireland since returning home at the start of 2019. 364 days after kicking his heels on the Kilmarnock bench, the lowest point in his career, Byrne was at the Aviva Stadium and the difference between the two best teams in the country, the leading light for Shamrock Rovers as they ended a 32-year wait to win the FAI Cup. Byrne was the star of the show as Rovers beat Dundalk on penalties in a dramatic match that finished 1-1 after extra-time.
As the teams lined up, the national anthem played and the President came out to greet the players, the ground became engulfed by smoke from the flares let off by both sets of supporters. From the Dundalk end in the north stand, the air was turned black and red. At the Rovers end on the opposite side of the stadium, it was green and white.
The two clouds of smoke met in the middle of the ground and made the opening few minutes difficult to decipher. Not for the first time at FAI HQ, there was a lack of clarity.
After the smog cleared, Shamrock Rovers had the better of the opening spell. Dundalk were evidently missing the suspended Chris Shields, their midfield general, as Byrne found space between the lines and looked for the ball in every phase of play, at times dribbling past players and opening space. His main weapon was the deft passes he played over the top for Aaron Greene to chase, and after one or two attempts he found his range. The industry of Greene and the artistry of Byrne combined to create Rovers’ first chance of the half. After 12 minutes, the Ireland midfielder floated a tantalising pass over the Dundalk defence for his teammate. Greene pulled away from his marker, found space, controlled the ball and steadied himself, but shot just wide.
The forward, who has scored 11 goals this season, then created two goalscoring chances from nothing. He collected the ball on the half-way line after a Dundalk corner was cleared, sprinted towards goal with three Dundalk players nearby, ignored the option of passing to Graham Burke on his right and cut inside, but saw his shot trickle wide of Gary Rogers’ goal.
A few moments later, Greene created the best chance of the half through nothing more than physical effort and stubbornness. He chased down Daniel Cleary outside the Dundalk penalty area, won the ball and squared it across the box for Ronan Finn. The Rovers midfielder had the goal at his mercy, Rogers was rooted to the spot, waiting for the ball to hit the net. But Finn didn’t make a clean connection. His backheel spun away from the goal and drifted wide.
17' Dundalk 0-0 Shamrock Rovers – The Hoops have started really well at the Aviva, brilliant atmosphere. Follow it right here with @ConorNeville https://t.co/3OeMqqfxm4 #RTEsoccer pic.twitter.com/88jv6taYwx
— Soccer Republic (@SoccRepublic) November 3, 2019
Before the game, one would have expected Dundalk to be the aggressors and take the tie to Rovers. They were the league champions, they had beaten Rovers three times already this year and don’t cede ground to any side. But the Dublin team were aggressive and proactive. Roberto Lopes, who was rightly named man of the match, and Lee Grace appeared to have Patrick Hoban under control, Michael Duffy was isolated and Dundalk’s midfield were struggling to get a grip on proceedings.
However, that only made a sucker-punch seem more likely. Rovers were in the ascendency, shooting towards their own supporters who had packed out the south stand, but Dundalk had the experience and pedigree. In the final 10-minutes of the half, they began to create some chances of their own, landing some jabs on Rovers.
Brian Gartland drew a save from Alan Mannus with a header, after finding space from a corner. Just before the half-time whistle, Sean Murray swung a pinpoint cross to the back post, where Cleary headed just wide, prompting a murmur of a cheer from Dundalk supporters who thought the ball had hit the back of the net.
The start of the second half saw Rovers regain control of the match and Byrne began pulling the strings again. The former Manchester City midfielder was excellent, undoubtedly the best player on the pitch. He sprayed a wonderful 30-yard pass into space for Burke to chase after collecting the ball near the centre-circle. He passed through the lines, taking out two and three Dundalk players at a time, or would dribble past opponents before releasing the ball.
The abiding image of him in this final will be the Rovers midfielder with his left arm extended, calling for the ball to be played to his feet. There was no phase of play when Byrne didn’t want possession or, more importantly, when he didn’t think he could make a difference.
The game hit a speed bump after the hour mark. It was clear that Dundalk were not going to work their way into the match, and if they were going to win, it would be against the run of play. The Lilywhites looked to have missed their chance at Irish sporting history, to become the first side in 30 years to complete a domestic treble.
With the match drifting towards extra-time and possibly penalties, Burke created space for himself, carried the ball forward and poked a pass through for Greene, who was fouled by Rogers. The referee pointed to the spot and Aaron McEneff dispatched it in the 90th minute.
— Soccer Republic (@SoccRepublic) November 3, 2019
The Rovers supporters and players celebrated like they were about to end the club’s 32-year wait for the cup. Which they were until Dundalk struck with the last kick of the game.
In the 94th minute, with seconds left on the clock, Duffy scored a stunning goal. The winger connected with a loose ball in the Rovers penalty area, turning and hitting a pristine half-volley to spark wild celebrations from the Dundalk end.
The was so little time between two goals that tweets dispatched immediately after the Rovers penalty had yet to load and send by the time Duffy’s strike hit the back of the net.
INCREDIBLE! Michael Duffy, with a moment of absolute brilliance, rescues Dundalk with seconds to go. It's extra-time in the FAI Cup final! https://t.co/3OeMqqfxm4 #RTEsoccer pic.twitter.com/xUIo5yws7V
— Soccer Republic (@SoccRepublic) November 3, 2019
Extra-time saw a lot of space open up, and the unusual sight of Patrick Hoban briefly in midfield, but there were too many tired players on the pitch for either side to take control and put the other away. Yet, Dundalk almost won it at the end. Georgie Kelly directed a shot on target from close range. Mannus got a hand on it and watched the ball bounce across the goal line and out for a corner. The teams would need penalties to be separated.
The shootout was at the south stand and into the Rovers end. Jamie McGrath stepped up first and slid the ball home nonchalantly, silencing the chorus of boos from the Rovers supporters. Byrne was up next. The midfielder buried the ball high into the net. Duffy, Dundalk’s saviour in normal time, struck the bar. Joey O’Brien put Rovers ahead with a thumping strike into the top corner. Mannus then saved Cleary’s strike to put Rovers two ahead. Bolger scored, Jordan Flores scored and then Gary O’Neill stuck the winning penalty away. Rovers’ 32-year wait for the FAI Cup final was over and they fully deserved the win.
Everywhere you looked on Sunday there was a storyline and a compelling narrative. History was going to be made one way or another. For Dundalk, it was the chance to complete a domestic treble, the first team to do so since Derry City in 1989, the only side in modern Irish football to achieve the feat. Vinny Perth in his first season as a head coach had the chance to become only the second manager, after Jim McLaughlin, to lead a team to undisputed domestic dominance.
Dundalk had the opportunity to stake their claim to be the best League of Ireland side ever. They have won five of the last six league titles. This was their fifth successive FAI Cup final, victors in 2015 and 2018, only John Caulfield’s Cork City have prevented them from making a clean sweep of Irish football’s biggest prizes over the last five years. This trophy would arguably be the one that meant the most – the one that legitimised their claim to be the best team the league has seen.
Dundalk have lost their most talented individuals over the last four years – Richie Towell, Daryl Horgan and Stephen Kenny – yet continued to win. In the precarious football landscape of Irish football, where clubs have a hand-to-mouth existence, and are left to fend for themselves without any support from the sport’s governing body, that is no mean feat. Dundalk are a winning machine. On the other side, there was a man looking to stop the machine – Byrne.
Rovers have had their own resurrection after years in the wilderness. Their story is compelling and Stephen Bradley’s team will now surely challenge Dundalk for supremacy next season. But it was difficult not to be drawn to Byrne, who controlled the game. Sadly, this could be his last appearance for Rovers, as England will surely come calling again. Burnley and Preston North End are said to be interested, and both will surely have had scouts in attendance. It’s a sin that more Irish football fans didn’t come to watch him play while he was a Luas journey away in Tallaght. Yet, that won’t matter to the Rovers fans, players or Byrne himself. The gifted midfielder’s redemption is complete. He created his own legacy on a day of history at the Aviva Stadium.