Crusaders spearhead challenge
The Great Hall at Stormont is one of the grandest settings in Northern Ireland.
And given that a team from north of the border are the holders of the Setanta Sports Cup it was, perhaps, fitting that the seat of power in Northern Ireland played host to the draw for the 2013 competition.
When Gareth McKeown’s penalty rippled the net at the city end of the Oval back in May to clinch victory for Crusaders over Derry City it marked a tipping of the balance of power.
No longer did teams from the League of Ireland have a stranglehold on the all-Ireland trophy.
Their six-year domination was over with one swing of the big defender’s right foot.
And now, the rest of the clubs in the Irish League want to make sure that the silverware remains in northern hands.
“We proved that we can win it,” said Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter.
“We beat Bohemians, Sligo Rovers and then Derry City.
“Sligo won the league this year, they have a huge budget running into over €1m which dwarfs ours by quite a bit and to beat them over two legs was simply incredible,” he said.
“That will live long in my memory. That was the winning of the tournament effectively for me,” he added.
After not getting out of north Belfast in their first taste of the competition in the previous season — they lost to Cliftonville over two legs — the all-Ireland buzz is still being felt around the Shore Road.
Making a league title challenge, an Irish Cup run and a tilt at all-Ireland glory, however, may be a step too far.
“In our first year we were in the hunt for the league and the Irish Cup, which meant we couldn’t really give it our full attention,” said Baxter.
“The way things panned out last season we weren’t involved in the shake-up for the league so we were able to concentrate on the cup competitions.
“A lot of it is determined by where you are in your own domestic field at that time.”
The very nature of the competition — which throws the top six teams from either side of the border into battle against each other — means that every game is a big one, and the bigger the better for some.
“I’m delighted with the draw,” said Coleraine manager Oran Kearney, whose team will face Shamrock Rovers in round one.
“We haven’t had much luck in draws and while you can say it’s the toughest tie, and that’s generally what we pull, in this context we’re delighted with it.
“The away game will be spectacular and if we have something to hold on to going into the home game it should make for a special night.
“We craved Europe last year and this is as close as we’re going to get at this stage.”
The Bannsiders have been all-Ireland champions before, in the late 1960s and then again in the early 70s. And Kearney has a belief that his current squad can relive past glories.
“Crusaders have done it, so why not?” said Kearney.
“The unexpected will be a big part of it and we haven’t been in there before.
“Most teams are at their best when they are underdogs and we are no different. We are going to use that tag to our advantage.”
Peter Thompson scored one of the goals when Linfield won the inaugural competition back in 2005.
The Blues then lost in the 2007 decider and while domestically they have been hit and miss this season, there is a desire to be all-Ireland champions again — although as Irish FA Premiership champions they don’t come into the Setanta Cup until the second round.
“The first year was a step into the unknown and we really enjoyed winning it,” said Thompson.
“We got to another final and a couple of semi-finals and we want to get back to that level.
“Last year and the year before we went out in the quarter-finals, so we never really got going in it.
“This year we need to get ourselves through the first game, into the semi-finals and then go on from there.”
Portadown manager Ronnie McFall was a player when the Shamrock Park side won one of the Setanta’s predecessors, the Texaco Cup, in the mid-70s and he too has his eyes on an all-Ireland title for the Ports.
“There is no reason why we, or any other Irish League club, can’t win it,” said McFall.
“Linfield did it in the first year, Glentoran got to a final and Crusaders won it last season, so we should all be thinking that we’re capable of winning it.”