Finn Harps preview and articles

Bray Wanderers meet Finn Harps in the FAI cup at the Carlisle Grounds on Saturday, 29 August. Due to Covid restrictions the match will be played with no spectators allowed into the ground on the evening. 

Due to the limited attendance there will be no match day programme printed. Instead our regular match day programme articles from Michael Duffy, Brian Quigley and Mícheál Ó hUanacháin will appear as part of our match preview on the website.

 

Match Preview 

Bray Wanderers and Finn harps have met eight times previously in the FAI cup with both sides recording two wins apiece with four games ending in draws. Wanderers defeated Finn Harps in Tolka Park in 1999 to win the FAI cup for the second time.

In 1989, the sides drew in the second round 1-1 in Ballybofey. Tom McNulty put Harps ahead in the replay, in extra time, before Wicklow Town man John Finnegan headed a late equaliser for Wanderers in another 1-1 draw. In the second replay, played in Ballybofey, Eugene “Pooch” Davis scored the only goal of the game to earn Wanderers victory.

The FAI cup meeting in 1998 resulted in a 2-0 win for Finn Harps in a first-round game played in Ballybofey. Goalscorers for Harps were Sammy Johnson and James Mulligan.

A year later, the sides met in the FAI cup final over three games played in Tolka Park. The first game ended in a scoreless draw. In the replay, Wanderers came from behind twice to earn a 2-2 draw. Barry O’Connor headed home an 87th minute equaliser for Wanderers to force the game into extra time after Jonathan Speake had given Harps the lead. Tom Mohan put Harps ahead again in extra time. In the final minute of extra time Wanderers were awarded a penalty. Colm Tresson’s spot kick was saved by Brian McKenna, but Kieran “Tarzan” O’Brien was quickest to react and scored to earn a second replay. In the third game Wanderers once again fell behind to a Speake goal. Jason Byrne then scored twice to earn a 2-1 victory for the Seagulls.

The sides last met in the FAI cup in August 2018. The roles were reversed in 2018 compared to this year’s encounter with Wanderers been a premier division team and Harps in the First division. Ger Pender gave Wanderers the lead in the first half before Sam Todd equalised for Harps in the second half to force extra time. Goals in extra time from Todd and Mikey Place gave Harps a 3-1 win.

(Michael Duffy)

‘Back In Baku’ (Brian Quigley)

If you play for Sabail, Sumgayit or Gabala then you’ll find that you’re back in Baku quite a lot. These are the only three teams in the eight-team Azerbaijani Premier Division that are based outside the capital, Baku. Given that the August to May league sees clubs playing each other four times, that makes no fewer than 10 trips to Baku for each of the above three to fulfill their away fixtures with Kesla, Neftchi, Qarabag, Sabah and Zira.

Azerbaijan is a country of some 10 million people (2 million of whom live in Baku) in the Caucasus, at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. It broke away from Russia in 1992. Baku – which is below sea level – is the lowest-lying capital city in the world; it is also a recent addition to the Formula 1 Grand Prix circuit.

Soccer is the country’s most popular sport, and the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (known as AFFA, which makes me think of ABBA!) oversees the top-level leagues (there is a First Division that the Premier relegates to) and the national teams.

AFFA are affiliated to both UEFA and FIFA. Azerbaijan’s first international after the breakaway from Russia was a 6-3 defeat to Georgia. The country’s record defeat is a 10-0 hammering by France in 1995, but they have recorded wins by four goals on two occasions – against Liechtenstein (4-0) in 1999 and against San Marino (5-1) in 2017.

Azerbaijan play their home games at the 70,000 capacity Baku Olympic Stadium. This stadium will host some group games in the 2020 UEFA European Championships, when the tournament eventually takes place in 2021.

Rashad Sadygov is the country’s most-capped player, with 111 appearances. Gurban Gurbanov has the most international goals with 14. Gurbanov is currently a successful manager domestically, having guided Qarabag to the title in 2019.

If you have never heard of Sadygov or Gurbanov, perhaps you have heard of Tofiq Bahramov. Football history has him down as Russian – and in fairness, Azerbaijan was a part of Russia at the time – but he is from Baku and was the linesman in the 1966 World Cup Final who helped award the vital goal to England to put them 3-2 up in extra-time against Germany.

Bahramov’s famous )or infamous, from a German point of view) moment went as follows. It was 2-2 and in the first half of extra-time when Geoff Hurst’s shot hit the crossbar and came straight down then bounced away from the goal. Gottfried Dienst, the Swiss referee, was unsure as to whether the ball had crossed the line so he consulted with Bahramov who convinced him that it had. The goal stood and England ran out 4-2 winners. With some of the German fans baying for his blood, I guess Bahramov couldn’t get back to Baku quick enough!

 

The All-Ireland Dream

Mícheál Ó hUanacháin casts a cold eye on the current debate about the potential of an All-Ireland League

What’s all this about, then?

For decades there has been a recurrent theme in Irish soccer circles concerning an All-Ireland dimension to the game. It has always petered out after a few months, though there were a couple of more serious debates which ended up with the creation of a cross-border tournament, most of which in turn failed after a couple of years.

To be accurate, there are two separate but similarly recurring debates: one about a single national team for the island, and the other about some form of merger of the League of Ireland and the Northern Ireland League. But both debates seem to fizzle out with equal rapidity.

As might be expected, difficulties abound in every proposal for a new initiative in either case – and in both cases the antipathy between the two Associations, stemming from the acrimonious relationship between them following the establishment of the breakaway FAI in 1921, is the underlying cause.

High-profile League and Cup matches between the northern and southern clubs had been a feature of the games prior to that split, and the handful of southern senior clubs missed their big gates when the northerners came to play in Dublin.  It took a few years, and much pressure on the Belfast IFA, before fixtures between the likes of Bohemians and Shelbourne and their northern counterparts could be resumed.

Condor cup action

Bohemians were the first southern club to break the silence, with the establishment of the Condor Cup, which they and Linfield played as friendlies each season. The first reference I’ve found is to a match in Dalymount on May 10th 1924 which Bohemians lost 3-2, but the Belfast Newsletter refers to that as a “return match” – they had played a Benefit for Dick McCracken (Linfield) in Belfast the previous December, though the Cup wasn’t mentioned on that occasion.

Later on, Shamrock Rovers and Glentoran contested the Hannigan Cup, on the same friendly basis, and St. James’s Gate and Glentoran played for the Unity Cup.

An odd feature, arising from the fact that a trophy was at stake in these games, was that a draw would usually require the playing of a replay, in the other club’s ground, a useful extra funding occasion.

These relationships were thrown into disarray by yet another flare-up of ill-will between the two associations which resulted in an FAI ban on any fixture between its own affiliated clubs and teams affiliated to the IFA, which lasted from 1932 to 1937.

But as soon as normal conditions were restored, the clubs pressed for permission to organise a cross-border tournament, which was finally agreed during the war, when six southern and six northern clubs established the North-South Tournament, which later became known as the Dublin and Belfast Inter-City Cup, at the end of the 1941/42 season.

As the tournament had created a fixture list of no fewer than 25 games in total (1st and 2nd Rounds, Semi-Finals and Final, all two-legged), it promised significant pay-offs for the clubs, which had been suffering significant financial problems as a consequence of the War. And though attendances, particularly for the matches involving the less-well-known clubs, did not live up to expectations, the competition ran for eight seasons, with niggly little problems, some (predictably) concerning money and the split of the income from the matches.

There were what amounted to political difficulties, too: after the 1943 tournament, for example, the Belfast Distillery club wrote to the organisers complaining about the playing of the Final (in which they weren’t involved) on a Sunday in Dublin. They warned that “We entered the competition on the clear understanding that no matches would be played on Sunday. If that rule is to be broken we would not be in a position to take any part in the competition next season.”

The history of cross-border competitions since then has been patchy and unsatisfactory. The North-South Cup (1961/2 & 1962/3) was followed by the Blaxnit Cup (1967-74), the Texaco Cup (1973/4 & 1974/5, following a wider competition of the same name), the Tyler Cup (1978-1980) and the Setanta Sports Cup (2005-2014). That most recent version lasted better than most, and  might have survived longer if it had not been for the financial crisis of 2008-10, during which Setanta Sports entered administration, with predictable consequences for the financial support they had offered the tournament.

But by the end, public and club interest had waned, especially among the northern clubs, as Southern teams had dominated from the start, and when Cliftonville and Linfield decided not to take part in 2014, the writing was on the wall.

But those north-south arrangements really tell us very little about the prospects for any proposed All-Ireland League (we’ll leave the question of an All-Ireland team for another day, although in reality the one would probably lead to the other).

The proposal comes into the light pretty much once every 10 years or so, and has done fairly regularly since the 1930s. Often enough, whether or not there have been formal approaches between the Leagues or the Associations north and south, the outcome has not merely been a rejection of the proposal, but a serious cooling of relations between Belfast and Dublin.

Sadly, however, all too often the arguments for the idea are enthusiastic rather than practical, optimistic about the positive outcomes to be expected, but without any evidence to back up their assertions.

Listen to Paul Murtagh, writing during the last great outburst of all-Irelandism in 2007/8:

“… it’s time that the local clubs claimed their crowds back and made Irish football once again an attractive proposition… The benefits are endless—with an All-Ireland league will come more interest from fans. Currently the only way they can watch a team from the north playing a team from the south is either a friendly or in the Setanta Cup.

 “An all-island league would allow this to happen every week and would attract major interest from fans.

 “This in return would appeal to sponsors, who would be happy to pour big money into the game in return for a higher interest from spectators.”

 Paul sets his argument in the context of local fans “flocking across the Irish sea every weekend to watch teams like Celtic, Rangers, Man Utd, Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, etc.”, and goes on to rhapsodise about the benefits higher attendances would bring to all – more professional players, better facilities, “a better chance of competing in European competitions.

 Much discussion on social media concentrates on the relative footballing merits of the clubs on either side of the border.  There is an implicit assumption that the League of Ireland is stronger than the Irish League, and at any top flight level they would be mismatched. That may be a fair reading of the situation at the top of the Premier Division (although who is at that pinnacle at present?).

Even if that is so, the lower tiers of the NIFL are arguably more competitive than the League of Ireland’s First Division, and any attempt to merge the two could have a disastrous effect on the southern clubs, with more than three times as many active League clubs in the north, and the predictable results in terms of travel costs for the clubs in the south.

After all, you couldn’t just merge the top flights and ignore the rest, could you?  Well, there are those in the game who believe firmly that there are too many clubs in the League of Ireland, and that a 16, or even a 12-team League would be as much as the football economy here can properly support.

The history of the League, which has lost clubs on a relatively regular basis since the turn of the century, mostly for economic reasons, might seem to bear that out. And yet, and yet…

Leaving aside the aggravating but essential questions no-one seems to address when this subject comes up, like the financial end of things (costs and subsidies, anyone? how many places in European competition? who’ll be in charge of the participation arrangements, choice of referees etc.?) – and even setting apart any residual romantic nationalism that might lie beneath the Southern surface – none of the purported benefits of a merger would bring back “the 1940s, when regular crowds of 50,000 would watch teams like Shelbourne and St. Patrick’s Athletic in the South, and Belfast Celtic and Linfield in the North” (Murtagh again).

I wish it would. I’d love it to happen. But it wouldn’t. And it won’t.

Move along there now, nothing to see here.

 

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