With just one Premier Division game set to go ahead this weekend, the eyes of Irish football will largely be planted on the last four action of the FAI Cup.
We’re now guaranteed an all-Premier Division final having seen the last hopes of non-league sides Killester United and Sheriff YC making it to the Aviva Stadium evaporate following defeats at the hands of Cork City’s opponents Bray Wanderers and Dundalk’s challengers Longford Town.
This has set up an intriguing set of semi-finals. While both City and Dundalk will undoubtedly be favourites to reignite their intense rivalry in Dublin 4, the route to the showpiece event may not be so simple.
Neither Bray nor Longford have been able to beat the top two Premier Division sides this season but both of the underdogs have had scoreless draws against their respective competitors. Longford’s deadlock in particular stands out, as they’re the only side to have held Dundalk scoreless in the league this season.
The Lilywhites will be vying to continue their drive for the double with victory while Cork City are still aiming to claim their first major honour since winning the First Division in 2011. For both Bray and Longford this weekend comes not only as an opportunity to get to the Aviva Stadium final but also to take a respite from the rigours of fighting for survival.
Friday October 2
Dundalk vs Longford Town (kick-off: 7:25pm)
While Longford have lifted two FAI Cups, both won in succession in 2003 and 2004, Dundalk will be vying for their tenth title, if they can get past Longford, last winning the cup in 2002.
As mentioned previously, this will be far from a straightforward task for Stephen Kenny’s men, judging on past performances against the Town.
A sticky season-opener between last year’s First Division victors and the Lilywhites saw Kenny’s side just make it through thanks to a 16th minute Daryl Horgan goal. The second meeting of these two in the league was, again, far from a resounding victory with Dundalk being held until Horgan once again opened the scoring before John Mountney finished Tony Cousins’ side off.
The third, and final, instalment of the pairs’ league clashes will be the one Cousins will look to as inspiration ahead of what everyone knows is going to be a mammoth ask for the midlands club.
Not only are Longford the only side to have stopped the Lilywhites from scoring in a league game this season but they also did it without their captain Mark Salmon for the entire second half after their skipper’s dismissal just before the half-time whistle, and went on to win a point against the champions.
This said, Dundalk have been formidable in the cup this year, conceding just one goal along the way whilst scoring at least four goals in every round thus far.
The last side put to the sword were Sligo Rovers, who Dundalk overturned on a scoreline of 4-0. Since then, hefty league wins against Drogheda and Limerick have shown that the Lilywhites are looking to finish the season strong. With another Premier Division title now within reach, winning the FAI Cup would certainly ice Dundalk’s 2015 cake.
The Lilywhites may not be able to manage another four in this round against the only defensive nut they were unable to crack this term in the league, but don’t hold out for an upset either.
Dundalk 3-1 Longford Town
Sunday October 4
Bray Wanderers vs Cork City (kick-off: 2pm)
This is the Leesiders’ most realistic hope of picking up silverware in a season that has almost, but not quite, reached the heights expected back in early March.
Now 13 points off Dundalk, albeit with a game in hand, the Premier Division title seems to be done and dusted while City hope of making a first final appearance in what seems like an age (eight years).
For Cork City, the draw has been kind in one way, as it’s kept Dundalk on the opposite side, but from another viewpoint it is one of the most testing. Bray have made things tricky for the Corkmen all season, only losing by one goal on two occasions to the Leesiders whilst they – much like Longford against Dundalk – have also managed to hold Cork City to a 0-0 draw back at the beginning of September.
Bray’s inconsistency has caught them out time and again this season however, and has left them precariously hovering above relegation threat all year long, but that sporadic form has at least abided in the cup for the most part, despite just scraping past Bohemians at the last 16 stage.
John Caulfield’s side are the most recent winners of the cup (2007) of the remaining four clubs and the fact that much of the squad won the trophy back then is a factor which must not be discounted when weighing up the strengths of both sides.
Mark McNulty, Dan Murray, John O’Flynn, Liam Kearney and Colin Healy all won the cup that year, so their experiences could count for a lot in the psychological battle which is set to take place.
Having played a replay in Derry, Cork City’s route has been that bit more difficult than Bray’s but one could argue the Leesiders’ wins in the competition have been much more emphatic than their Premier Division counterparts.
A 2-0 victory over Wexford Youths was followed by a potentially difficult draw against St Pat’s but City swatted away Liam Buckley’s men with a 4-0 win in what Dan Murray described this week as his side’s best display over 90 minutes in the cup this season.
Then came the long trip to the Brandywell in which the Leesiders had to dig deep to secure a second shot at progression from the quarter-finals in Turner’s Cross.
A stunning strike from Ross Gaynor instigated City’s 3-0 victory and now Bray is the obstacle in the way.
Both semi-finals share characteristics, in that one team is certainly the underdog but both of the favourites have found it difficult to consistently break down their respective opponents this year.
For City, having to play at the Carlisle Grounds means this is a reasonable estimation of what is to come this Sunday too.
Bray Wanderers 0-1 Cork City
Rob Lyons, Pundit Arena