Many parallels can be drawn between this time last year and where we are now, with Dundalk and Cork City going toe-to-toe as the season concludes for another year.
While last season’s final game between the pair had 32 games building up to it, giving it a cup final atmosphere of its own, this term’s FAI Cup showdown has more of a sense of majesty about it. Old memories have been rekindled in recent weeks of Derek Coughlan’s header in the 1998 replay and Denis Behan’s diving header, which sealed City’s last success on a windswept night eight years ago.
A surprisingly large contigent of that 2007 squad remains in place as the Leesiders travel to the Aviva Stadium for a match-up with a team they, as of yet, cannot seem to budge.
While the Lilywhites have roared on to back-to-back league successes, City have been foiled by the Louthmen’s guile, craft and cunning on every occasion in recent years. The penultimate day of City’s first season back in the top flight (2012) was the last time the Leesiders won a league game against the Louthmen.
But this is going to be different. This is a match of different complexities and extremities of emotion; not to mention that the game is being played in a venue these two clubs’ modern adaptations have yet to face each other in.
While the favourites tag becomes less meaningful in games such as these, there is vast evidence of Dundalk’s superiority over Cork City in recent times to suggest the Lilywhites are the safer bet.
However, there are signs that the gap between the two is diminishing slightly. A close-fought 2-1 defeat in Turner’s Cross was followed by two draws this year, the most recent of which the Rebel Army clawed their way back from what looked like a perilous two-goal deficit, which could yet prove to be a psychological advantage.
It may be wrong to focus solely on the clashes between the two teams individually this season however, as overall Dundalk have kicked on while Cork City have regressed.
Last term the Louthmen pipped City by two points, however this year their lead at the top is an impressive eleven – that represents a four-point improvement for Kenny’s side while City have reduced their end-of-season tally by five since 2014.
Over the course of 33 games it’s impossible to begrudge the Lilywhites of their success, particularly in the way they relentlessly dismiss teams no matter how far ahead they find themselves. Dundalk’s cup run provides ample evidence of this trait. With no goal difference to take into account, the Louthmen still waltzed past their opposition in every single round, with little to suggest any side was dealt even a gram of mercy by the champions.
Shelbourne were the first of the lambs to be slaughtered with a 5-0 win ending the Dublin club’s involvement. Next up it was Galway, who are so far the only team to have scored against Dundalk in the cup. Tommy Dunne’s men were duly put in their place, however, eventually losing 4-1.
Sligo didn’t put up much of a fight either being knocked for four too while in the semi-final Longford Town did well to ship just two goals against this marauding, tireless freight train of a team.
What gives this side its ability to win games by such large margins is largely down to a midfield which does not mess about once the ball enters the opposition’s half. Daryl Horgan, Richie Towell and Ronan Finn are all players capable of doing a box-to-box job but it is their ability to change up gears when it’s needed and find pockets of attacking space to fill which makes this side so menacing.
Much has already been spoken of Towell’s importance to Dundalk but with 28 goals under his belt from midfield already this year, it’s no wonder a level of wonder and awe for Lilywhite supporters is equalled with a degree of apprehension from the Leeside faithful every time he picks up the ball in and around the box.
He’s well versed at smashing them past Mark McNulty at this point too so the midfield battle is evidently key in stopping any worrying penetration for City.
More than cameos will do from the likes of Liam Miller and Colin Healy in the final, who both played sparingly in Dalymount last weekend if a formidable shield is to be set up at the edge of the area.
While counteracting this pace from the engine room will need to be a major focus for City, the positives displayed by John Caulfield’s men must come to the fore and a there needs to at least be a spell in which the Leesiders control the game if they’re to have any hope.
Mark O’Sullivan will be key in giving the attack its focal point whilst the two who’ll likely play wide of the striker will have to play on the front foot and with a confidence to take on their opposite numbers.
The game, however, will be won and lost on how much space Dundalk are afforded and/or create between City’s midfield and defence.
This game is not only huge for both clubs in terms of having a 2015 to look back on and cherish but it will also have a bearing on next year. If City win, it immediately takes the Dundalk-shaped psychological barrier down ahead of next season’s title push while for the Lilywhites it asserts their position as the utmost authority in Irish football until next March rolls around and possible beyond that.
Rob Lyons, Pundit Arena