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I feel for stars who miss out on their biggest day like I did, says former Portadown star Robert Casey

 

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Damp squib: Brian Strain lifts the Irish Cup

Damp squib: Brian Strain lifts the Irish Cup

Simon Gribben

Simon Gribben

Robert Casey

Robert Casey

Damp squib: Brian Strain lifts the Irish Cup

The 2020 sporting calendar now has more Xs on it than a winning bingo card. The Olympic Games have been postponed for a year, Euro 2020 delayed until 2021 and pretty much all other football across Europe is on hold.

The Tour de France has been pushed back, likewise three of golf's Majors - the Open has been cancelled altogether. GAA's County Championships weren't able to start on time and plans to begin the Formula One season without spectators present seem optimistic at best.

Locally, this Saturday should have been Irish Cup final day. Windsor Park bathed in sunshine and dominated by the colours of two sets of fans whose enjoyment and memories of the day would be dictated by the outcome.

There will be no Cup presented this May. The four teams left in the competition - Ballymena United, Cliftonville, Coleraine and Glentoran - don't even know when, or if, their semi-finals will be played.

As the prospect of there being no showpiece occasion in local football becomes increasingly more likely the longer coronavirus keeps sporting venues closed, the more likely it is that sportsmen and women will miss out, potentially on once in a lifetime opportunities too.

It's 21 years since the Irish Cup final was last cancelled after Cliftonville fielded an ineligible player in their semi-final victory over Linfield.

Simon Gribben played for Kilmore Rec earlier in the competition and with Cliftonville expelled, the rules at the time dictated that Portadown were awarded the trophy without playing the game.

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Simon Gribben

Simon Gribben

Simon Gribben

 

The Ports did return to the decider the following year when they lost to Glentoran, but within weeks of the final that never was Robert Casey had left the club and was scoring for hometown side Newry Town in Europe, never getting the opportunity to play in an Irish Cup final.

"It was surreal at the time. We'd heard whispers about it in the build-up, but we went ahead with everything - got measured for suits and that type of thing," he said.

"We reported for training on the Thursday night in the week before the final and Ronnie McFall walked into the dressing room with a crate of beer and set it on the table and said, 'There you go lads, we've been handed the trophy'.

"It was a complete damp squib for us.

"The expectation on the day and the walking out for the final and it just took the whole gloss off it.

"I'd more or less a deal done with Newry and I thought I was going into a good squad and we'd a chance of getting to finals, but looking back now that was my only chance of playing in an Irish Cup final and it was taken away from me through no fault of my own.

"It still gets to me. I missed out on the whole day.

"I talk to guys who still go to Irish Cup finals now just to soak up the atmosphere and I think what I missed out on the most was the day itself.

"Walking out and seeing a full house at Windsor Park was something that I was looking forward to. That would have been great, but I didn't get to experience that. Even if we'd played the match and lost, I still would have had that experience.

Robert Casey

 

"I won other trophies at Portadown, but those finals were all midweek in those days and there was no build-up attached to them and no real big celebrations after. It was just like another midweek match. I scored the winner in a final against Crusaders and I remember I went into the bar at Windsor Park afterwards, had a couple of drinks, home, went to bed and got up for work the next morning.

"I'd lost in three Irish Cup semi-finals before that, so getting to the final was a big thing for me."

There will be more high-profile sports stars than Casey who will miss out on bigger occasions than an Irish Cup final before things return to normal - whatever the new normal in sport turns out to be.

Twenty-one years after his big day was wiped out when matters beyond his control took over, Casey believes there will be pangs of disappointment and regret for a long time for those who will experience the same misfortune.

"You have to feel sorry for the sportsmen and women who are potentially going to miss out on things. In particular, I look at the Olympics. Athletes train for three or four years with the Olympics in mind and they've one opportunity over the course of a couple of weeks to compete and try to win something and that's all been taken away through no fault of their own," said Casey.

"Trying to get over this virus is the main priority for everyone right now, but from a sporting point of view the Premier League is going to rattle on before a final decision is made, the Six Nations has stopped and we don't know if that will finish, golf Majors are falling. It's all a bit strange and crazy times, but I feel the most for Olympians who train for four years and it might only come along once for them.

"The Olympics doesn't come around every year and there might be athletes who were ready to compete this year and might not make it next year or might not be able to reach the same peak.

"It's okay postponing events and holding them later on, but guys who are coming to the end of their career, this might be their one chance to win something or compete at that level. Something being put back a year for a 33 or 34-year-old might mean they miss out.

"Everyone says you've an Irish Cup medal, but it means nothing. Ronnie McFall handed it to me in the corridor when Portadown came to play Newry the following season and that's not how I'd envisaged being presented with the medal."

Belfast Telegraph