Setanta Cup still alive and kicking... but only just
Milo Corcoran, the head of the Setanta Cup organising committee, has revealed how close the competition came to disappearing off the sporting calendar.
Minus a sponsor until October – when Setanta stepped back in with a three-year commercial commitment, the cross-border tournament then received a further blow on Monday, when both Linfield and Cliftonville withdrew from next season's competition.
"By October, we had everything sorted, but a month or so earlier, we were close to losing it," said Corcoran.
"Linfield and Cliftonville's absences are further disappointments, but what can you do?
"You can invite a club to come in, but if they say no, you have to go to Plan B.
"We've ended up with Plan C, but we will go back to Linfield again next year if they qualify and invite them to participate again.
"This is the Setanta Cup's ninth year. It is far from over as a concept. Setanta are here for another three years and we are looking for an additional sponsor."
Linfield, inaugural winners in 2005, said reduced prize money and scheduling of matches led to their decision.
The year's competition winners will earn just shy of £28,000 which is considerably down on the £120,000 picked up by the Blues eight years ago.
Shamrock Rovers earned close to £45,000 for winning this year's competition.
Current Premiership champions Cliftonville said their busy fixture list had prompted their withdrawal.
Holders, Shamrock Rovers – who also won the tournament in 2011 – have been drawn to play Irish Cup winners Glentoran in next season's competition, which will run on a two-legged knock-out format.
Crusaders meet FAI Cup holders and last year's League of Ireland champions Sligo Rovers; 2011 finalists Dundalk face Coleraine and newcomers Ballinamallard United face the defending League of Ireland champions, St Pat's.
In the eight years of the Setanta Cup, Linfield and Crusaders are the only Irish League clubs to have won the trophy.
And Danske Bank Premiership sides face a massive challenge to record a hat-trick of wins as managers will always prioritise the title chase or race for European football. Coleraine were the only team to win a leg against eventual winners Shamrock Rovers in the 2013 competition.
The Crues may come up against Mark Quigley as Sligo Rovers manager Ian Baraclough may encourage the striker to return to the club.
Quigley, who failed to impress at Shamrock Rovers last year prior to getting released from his contract on Tuesday, has also alternative offers from St Pat's, Derry City and Dundalk.
And while Baraclough's move is significant, it has probably arrived too late, with Quigley's reappearance at St Pat's, another former club, the likeliest scenario for the striker.
"We are aware of the rumours (about Quigley joining St Pat's)," said the Richmond Park club's defender Ger O'Brien yesterday.
"Whoever ends up with Mark in their side will get a guy who can be the best player in the league on his day. The thoughts of him coming into our dressing-room would excite me."
In the 2013 Setanta Cup final, Shamrock Rovers hammered Drogheda United 7-1.
First legs are scheduled to take place on Monday, February 24 with the return games on Monday, March 10.
Setanta Sports will announce later which of the quarter-final first legs they intend to broadcast.