Recently-crowned Munster Junior Cup champions and Tipperary Southern and District League standard bearers, St. Michaels AFC of Tipperary Town, will contest their fifth national final - and their fourth in the past decade – when they lock horns with Limerick District League Champions Pike Rovers in the 2011 edition of the FAI Junior Challenge Cup Final at Turner’s Cross, Cork at 3pm this coming Sunday.
In the Republic of Ireland’s biggest cup competition and one of the biggest in Europe, over 700 teams set out last September on a journey from the four corners of the country in a bid to lift the blue riband trophy of amateur football, the Umbro sponsored FAI Junior Cup.
St. Michael’s greatest hour was in 1974 when they defied all the odds by becoming the first rural side to lift the FAI Junior Cup, beating Tolka Rovers of Dublin 3-1 in their own backyard. Since then it has been a case of so near and yet so far, as the Saints’ dream of repeating that success have ended in disappointment. In the only televised final, in 2000, Saints lost to Portmarnock FC. It was the same story again in 2002, following a replay against Limerick heavyweights Fairview Rangers and they were also beaten by the same opposition in last year’s final in a penalty shoot-out after a 0-0 draw. Saints will be hoping their luck will change as they face another Limerick heavyweight in Pike Rovers who, surprisingly, are making their very first appearance in the decider.
So far St. Michael’s, whose season began last July, have already won the inaugural John Delaney Cup and Munster Junior Cup and have won 40, drawn 2 and lost 3 games. After the disappointment of letting the TSDL championship title slip from their grasp, manager John Cremins, who was in the ‘hot seat’ in 2000 and 2010 and whose late father, D.D. Cremins captained the 1974 side to success, has seen his charges produce some excellent displays to reach back-to-back finals. He knows that his players have the ability to pick themselves up for the biggest game in their season. No doubt he would love to see a repeat performance against Pike Rovers that saw Saints score that impressive 5-1 victory in Limerick on their way to Munster Junior Cup success. But he would also be quite happy if it was a fortuitous goal – like the one that cost them the TSDL title - or another penalty shootout, so his beloved Saints’ can bridge that 37 year gap.
The majority of the players that will line-out for St. Michael’s in this showpiece were part of the side that experienced heartbreak almost a year ago at this venue and will be more determined than ever to lift this trophy and return it to the Premier County for only the third time since its inception in 1922.
St. Michael’s have three current Amateur internationals and a former one making up the back four, and this is the backbone of a side that conceded just three goals on their way to the Final. It was Cullen-Lattin 5-0 away, followed by home victories against Moyglass United 3-1 and Clonmel Celtic 1-0 in the local rounds. Saints were at home again up until the semi-finals with victories over Rathkeale (Limerick Desmond) 4-0; Avenue United (Clare) 1-0; Wicklow Rovers 4-0 and North End United (Wexford) 2-1. In the semi-final Saints travelled to Wexford, where they overcame New Ross Celtic 4-1 after extra time.
St. Michael’s have four changes in their squad from last season. Out went Timmy Kiely, Jamie Morrissey and Paul Kennedy. In came Padraic Fogarty from Peake Villa and Shane Guerin from Ballynanty Rovers. The probable squad for Sunday will be Derek Breen, Paul Tobin, Chris Higgins, Paul Breen, James Walsh, Trevor Cosgrave, Jimmy Carr, Thomas Fahey, Pat Quinn, Richie Ryan, John Connery, Michael Fitzgerald, Padraic Fogarty, Shane Guerin, Danny O’Brien and Sean O’Halloran.
Pike Rovers’ foundation, like St. Michael’s, dates back to late 1930-40s and they are one of the high profile teams in Ireland that has not lifted this coveted trophy. Since the draw was made last September, Pike Rovers have been odds-on favourites to lift this prize and so far have kept that tag alive. However, their controversial expulsion from last season’s FAI Junior Cup to St. Michael’s at the quarter-final stage, and then that humiliating 5-1 defeat by Saints in the Munster Junior Cup semi-final this season have dented the Limerick District League champions’ pride.
The Shannonsiders, with former St. Michael’s striker Alan Barry in their ranks, will be out to reverse those setbacks, which should add additional spice to this showpiece. There is no better place to settle these gripes than on the biggest stage that junior football has to offer.
Pike Rovers, who saw off current FAI Junior Cup holders Fairview Rangers 4-2 in the second round, had facile victories in the next local rounds against former TSDL side Knocklong and Castle Rovers by 9-0 and 4-0 respectively. In the open draw Nenagh AFC visited Limerick, where Pike Rovers won 3-0. Rovers beat fellow Limerick League side Kilmallock United 2-0 away before hammering Bellurgan United from the Dublin AUL 8-0 in the quarter-finals in Limerick. It was then a visit to the capital for the Limerick champions where they met another Dublin AUL side, Sheriff Y.C. After letting a two-goal lead slip the game ended in a 3-3 draw and it was decided by 4-2 penalty shoot-out.
For this final the Limerick city side will have the experienced Wayne Colbert, John Tierney and Pat McGarry, who missed the Munster Cup tie back in their ranks for Sunday’s showdown. Since that thrashing Rovers have got back to winning ways so they will be a much different proposition on Sunday. Their expected squad is Gary Neville, Wayne Colbert, Brian Cleary, Patrick Mullins, Colm Enright, Eoin Hanrahan, Keith Hartnett, Conor Kavanagh, Patrick Moloney, Alan Barry, John Tierney, Wayne O’Donovan, Pat McGarry, Colm Carroll and David Ryan.
This showpiece may not be the football spectacle everyone is hoping for as these heavyweights battle it out for the biggest prize that the majority of amateur soccer players throughout Ireland just dream about. For St. Michael’s it’s an opportunity to end the heartbreak of the four previous deciders. For Pike Rovers, it is the opportunity to show that they will no longer have to live in the shadow of record breaking arch-rivals Fairview Rangers if they can lift the Holy Grail of junior football for the very first time in their 73 year history. So, a lot is at stake for both sides and it’s unlikely that a repeat of the Munster Junior Cup semi-final between these great rivals will take place on Sunday. The one thing that is definite is that the outcome must be decided on the day, with 20 minutes extra-time and penalties if required.
On what is another chapter in the history of soccer in the Premier County the Tipperary Southern and District League wishes St. Michael’s AFC, who are outstanding ambassadors for the game of soccer, the best of luck on Sunday.