By Jack Murray
It’s been just two years since Letterkenny Rovers made history and lined out in the Aviva Stadium for their first FAI Intermediate Cup final in the club’s history. Now after another impressive cup campaign, they have found themselves within touching distance of reliving that moment – running out the tunnel in our national football stadium.
Standing between them and the most hallowed soil in Irish soccer however, is Dublin’s Firhouse Clover.
While Rovers will know that any team from the Leinster Senior League would a be a formidable outfit, they can however take comfort in the fact that they will have home advantage and that the Dubliners will have to battle it out in Leckview Park.
They will also take confidence from their quarter final display in which they were deserving winners over Home Farm, in Leckview. Darren McElwaine netted twice that day, both from set pieces.
His first was a beautiful curled free kick into the bottom left of the net. He then followed that up with a second half penalty in which he confidently sent the keeper the wrong way and slotted home.
Prior to that, they disposed of another team from the capital – this time on an away trip to Dublin – in the round of 16. Cherry Orchard were put to the sword by Rovers with a convincing 3-0 win courtesy of goals from Conor Tourish, Ryan Lonergan and Pajo Rafferty.
All that, coupled with an Ulster Senior League campaign which has the title still very much within their reach, should have the Cathedral Town side brimming with confidence and setting their sights on the final in the Aviva Stadium.
But for Christy Conanghan, one of several Rovers men still playing with the club who had lined out in the Aviva two years ago, he’s not looking past the game at hand just yet, “It would definitely, definitely, be good to back to the Aviva,” he said, “But we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves just yet. We have to get past the game at the weekend. I suppose you have to take one game at a time or you could find yourself not getting back at all.”
He admits to not having an in depth knowledge of Firhouse Clover – a side which has never made an FAI Intermediate Cup final – but indicates that Rovers will be showing them a lot of respect, “I know that they’re going ok in the league so far and I know that any team from the Leinster Senior League will be a good side and that we’ll never get an easy game from them,” he said.
Indeed, Firhouse Clover disposed of Crumlin United in the quarter final to secure their date with Letterkenny. Crumlin are a team Rovers know too well as they ran out 5-0 winners in the Intermediate Cup final on that fateful day in 2016.
They are also a team which has won this tournament four times in the last nine years so any team who toppled them on their way to the semis, is certainly an outfit to be respected. Indeed, Firhouse have also established themselves as one of the in form teams in this competition as they’ve managed to make it to this stage of the competition without even conceding a single goal.
“I know from playing in this competition that there’s always been Leinster Senior League sides in the final stages,” Connaghan said, adding, “So it’ll be a tough task.”
He’s right, of course, as should Letterkenny win on Sunday then they’ll meet another Leinster side in the final as UCD and Dublin Bus are contesting the other semi-final after both winning their quarter finals after replays – beating Maynooth and Avondale respectively.
But again, Connaghan isn’t even considering those teams just yet, “We’re just looking at the game at the weekend. We know it’s going to be a big and game and we’ll have to be performing at all levels to win it,” he said.
Indeed, he recalls past experiences as a reminder of how easily a spot in the final could slip from your grip.
Two years ago, they were dealt a serious scare, when in the semi-final and deep into injury time in the dying stages of the game they were 1-0 up when their opposition, Ringmahon Rangers of Cork, pulled one back to level it seconds before the final whistle. Of course, Letterkenny went on to win the replay but that jolt in the neck will no doubt focus their attention this weekend. “Looking back to two years ago, we were thirty seconds away from reaching the final when they scored so we know it’s not over until it’s over,” he said.
The replay was won at home so Connaghan said, he’s very happy that this game will be played in Leckview, “Yeah, everyone likes playing on their home patch,” he said, “We’ve won some big games at Leckview these past few years. Even the atmosphere itself is great. It’s a nice venue and if we can get good support in, get a good crowd and create a good atmosphere then it always helps.”
He cautioned against fans being to confident though saying, “In saying all that though, it could still go 180 minutes and we may have to go up there as well but it’s definitely good to get a home draw.”
Rovers have a team, which is, more or less, at full strength save two omissions. Brian McVeigh pulled his quad muscle a few weeks ago and will sit out the game while Paul McVeigh is in doubt with a twinge in the hamstring, but his teammates remain hopeful that he will be ok for the weekend.
But even with that, they will be led by one man who knows what it takes to win this competition, Eamon McConigley who won the competition twice with the legendary Fanad United side of the 80s and 90s is managing this side and certainly has the trust of players like Connaghan, “Eamon knows this competition inside out,” he said, “Two years ago he was a big reason that we got to the final. He nurtured us there along with Anthony Gorman and the backroom staff. He has a good team there and, in fairness, there’s no stone left unturned with those lads and he’ll have us well ready for the weekend again.”
The Cathedral town club are hoping that that experience, coupled with that gained by the players two years ago...