The highly-anticipated 2017 FAI Cup final takes place in the Aviva Stadium on Sunday as the league’s top two sides, Cork City and Dundalk, battle it out once again to be crowned cup winners.
City are looking to do a first ever double and also retain the cup they won last year thanks to a sole strike from Sean Maguire. Runners-up in the league, Dundalk will be looking to win their eleventh FAI Cup and make up for missing out on a fourth league title on the trot.
Ahead of the third final between these two in three years, we have picked out five players worth keeping an eye on during Sunday’s decider.
5. Ryan Delaney (Cork City)
Centre-back Delaney made his LOI debut back in 2014 with Wexford Youths but 2017 has seen the defender truly make a name for himself in domestic football. Having spent almost three seasons with Wexford, Delaney joined Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion in 2016 before signing on-loan at John Caulfield’s Cork City at the beginning of this campaign.
He quickly became a mainstay at the heart of the City defence, partnering veteran Alan Bennett as the Leeside club captured the Premier Division title. The deal was initially set to last until July but Delaney’s importance saw Cork extend his stay until the season’s conclusion.
He made over 40 appearances for the champions and was also called up to the Ireland under-21 side in what has been a superb season for the Wexford man. Sunday’s FAI Cup final against Dundalk will be his last game for the club before returning to parent club Burton.
4. Patrick McEleney (Dundalk)
The jewel in the Dundalk crown, McEleney is impossible to stop when at his best, and the Cork defence will have their hands full keeping the former Derry man at bay. After a brief spell with Sunderland in 2009, the Derry native signed for his local club ahead of the 2010 campaign, spending five seasons at the Brandywell.
His constant flair and attacking ability drew plenty of plaudits and Stephen Kenny took him to Dundalk in 2016. He played in all twelve of the Louth side’s European ties that season as well as capturing his first Premier Division title. Injury has somewhat disrupted his 2017 season but recent performances against Shamrock Rovers and Galway have reminded LOI fans just how talented McEleney is.
3. Conor McCormack (Cork City)
McCormack has been one of City’s many stars of the season and appeared to improve as the campaign went on. A Man of the Match display in the sides’ latest league meeting epitomised the work-rate and energy of the former Derry City midfielder.
The Louth man only recently signed a new deal at Turner’s Cross and will be eager to get one over the side from his native county. Having joined in the off-season from Derry, McCormack’s versatility has been a major asset to John Caulfield’s squad this year but it is in midfield where he is most at home. The ex-Manchester United youth may not gain all of the plaudits but he will be a key individual if the Leesiders are to retain their crown on Sunday.
2. Sean Gannon (Dundalk)
Now in his fourth season at Oriel Park, Gannon has been an ever-present in the Dundalk defence since arriving from St Pat’s in 2014. After spells at Shamrock Rovers and the Saints, the right-back made his mark in senior football that year as Dundalk claimed the first of three titles in a row.
An FAI Cup medal followed in 2015 and Gannon also played a pivotal role in the club’s European successes of 2016. The Dubliner has remained a vital part of the 2017 squad under Stephen Kenny and his battle with Cork winger Stephen Dooley will be a key area on the Aviva pitch this Sunday.
1. Mark McNulty (Cork City)
McNulty is undoubtedly the player that everybody is talking about ahead of Sunday’s showdown. In an intriguing pre-match subplot Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny has heavily criticised the goalkeeper’s late-night commentary of Dundalk following Cork’s title coronation.
This has only added to what is already building towards an enthralling encounter. All eyes will be on City’s longest serving player as a result and every move the netminder makes will be scrutinised. McNulty is an experienced campaigner, however, and will be well capable of stepping up to the task. A City fan all his life, the Ballincollig man will relish the big occasion.