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A footballing institution that has spanned the generations

By Keith Bailie

When David Steel gifted the County Antrim Football Association a new trophy in 1895, he probably couldn't have foreseen that he had kick-started a sporting institution that would survive 121 years.

The Steel & Sons Cup was designed and made by Steel & Sons Ltd, a Royal Avenue-based company that was best known for its watches and cutlery.

It's doubtful that the Intermediate competition - contested by clubs from the north-east of Ulster - would have survived if it wasn't for the County Antrim FA's grand idea of playing the final on Christmas Day.

At the time, the plan wasn't considered all that radical. Christmas Day football was the norm in England until 1957, while it was not uncommon for Irish League teams to play on both Christmas and Boxing Day into the 1950s.

However, as the rest of football moved away from festive fixtures, the Steel & Sons Cup stuck steadfastly to their traditional cup final date - a decision that has paid dividends over the years.

The fixture is regularly the only match on Christmas Day, attracting bumper crowds and media coverage from around the world.

However, there remains an exception to the Yuletide rule.

As is the case this year, the final is moved to Christmas Eve if Christmas falls on a Sunday.

Although the Irish FA's ban on Sunday football was removed in 2008, the County FA have stuck by their tradition.

The fact this year's decider is on Christmas Eve doesn't seem to have dampened any enthusiasm.

Today's clash between Dundela and Linfield Swifts at Seaview is expected to sell-out before kick-off.

Perhaps the extra interest can be explained by the competing sides, who are two of the tournament's most successful teams.

Premier Intermediate League outfit Dundela, from east Belfast, have lifted the trophy on 10 occasions, while Linfield Swifts, reserve side of the famous Windsor Park club, have won the cup eight times.

The fixture itself has no shortage of tradition.

In 1972, it was the first final to be played at Seaview after the County Antrim FA decided to move the showpiece occasion away from its traditional home of Solitude. On that occasion, the Swifts won 2-1.

In 1987, the Christmas Day final finished in 1-1 draw, with Mervyn Bell's Duns winning a replay 1-0 a few days later.

Then, in 1997, Andy McClean scored a memorable golden goal for Linfield Swifts to defeat Dundela 1-0 - the Blues' last involvement in a Steel & Sons decider.

Today's encounter will be the fourth time the two clubs have clashed in the final.

Dundela, managed by Newtownards man David Murphy, defeated Glebe Rangers 2-0 in the previous round, with former Glentoran man Matty Burrows - who scored in the 2007 final when the Duns beat Ballyclare Comrades - registering a late brace.

Alan Dornan's Linfield Swifts booked their place in today's game when they came back from 2-0 down to beat Amateur League outfit Crumlin Star 3-2, thanks to a second half hat-trick from Jonny Frazer.

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