IN THE annals of Irish football, no story has caused as much angst as the tale of St Pat’s and the FAI Cup. It isn’t just that they have waited so long since their last win – 51 years and counting – more, the manner in which they have come so close.
For those under the age 60, there is no memory of the last time they lifted the trophy. Instead, heartbreak fills the void. Some, genuinely, reckon the Saints are cursed, that some unseen hand has guided them down the path to damnation. They’ll point to 1996 and Eddie Gormley’s penalty miss, to 2003 and Charles Mbabazi Livingstone’s sudden illness, to 2006 and Stephen Brennan’s own goal.
Every Cup final was a drama in itself. Some games became unforgettable for how victory was gained or given away. In 1996, when the Pat’s-Shels rivalry was coming to the boil, Alan Gough saved Gormley’s penalty and Shels had a reprieve. Tony Sheridan scored a goal delivered by the Gods and the Saints entered sporting hell. “We coped at the time because we had won the League,” says the former Pat’s boss, Brian Kerr.
Yet coping became their default setting. In 1998, 1999 and 2002 they’d prove the best team in the country again. But their Holy Grail was the other piece of silverware. “That’s the one I’ve been waiting most my life for,” Harry Boland, the club’s late grounds man and former player used to tell Pat Dolan.
But year after year, they’d try and fail. Then they’d pick themselves up and make a promise to, at least, fail better.
What made it harder was that rival clubs kept ending their own personal famines at Pat’s expense. In 1974, Finn Harps made it to their first final. Pat’s were the opposition but who cared about them? This was the Donegal men’s fairytale. They won 3-1.
Then it was Waterford United’s turn. Having dominated the League – winning six titles out of eight between 1966 and 1973, the Cup was their last frontier. And they crossed it in 1980, beating Pat’s in the final, 2-0.
Suddenly a queue of desperate clubs formed. Since lifting the trophy in 1961, almost every other club in the League had their day in the sun, Shamrock Rovers firstly in 1962, then Shelbourne, then Rovers for six years in a row, including a 1967 final win over Pat’s. Bohemians won their first Cup in 35 years in 1970 and that decade would see Limerick, Cork Hibs, Harps, Home Farm and Dundalk either be first time winners or winners for the first time in ages.
The 80s continued the trend, Waterford lifting the trophy for the first time since 1937, Sligo, UCD and Derry for the first time ever, a feat matched by Bray in 1990, Galway in 1991, Cork City in 1998, Longford in 2003, Drogheda in 2005, Sporting Fingal in 2009.
And all the while, Pat’s suffered in silence. Only Athlone Town, winners back in 1924, have had a longer wait.
Now they’re back. “No one mentions the Cup-famine more than the media,” says Liam Buckley, the Pat’s manager. “In any case, we aren’t daunted by the past. We want to make our own history.”
This Sunday they can. Derry, conquerors in 2006, yet again are their opponents. Pat’s led them twice in that year’s final, once with just six minutes left, once in injury-time. Derry came back. An own goal from Stephen Brennan settled the tie. Six months afterwards, Brennan admitted the experience still haunted him. Until the Cup returns to Inchicore, it always will. This story is the soccer equivalent of Mayo and the chase for the Sam Maguire. And it’ll be fascinating to see if they leave sporting purgatory this weekend.
* FAI Cup final, Sunday, Lansdowne Road, 3.30pm