Will sectarianism spell the end of the Setanta Sports Cup?

As Shamrock Rovers prepare to take on Linfield at Windsor Park in the Setanta Sports Cup quarter final, the long-term viability of the competition is under threat
By Ryan Kelly

Since its inception in 2005, the Setanta Sports Cup has been a perennial source of consternation. At an administrative level, clubs have complained of its timing and changing format, while attendances have been worryingly inconsistent. Moreover, the seemingly inevitable crowd trouble between supporters has raised legitimate safety concerns. With these issues in mind, it is perhaps no surprise that, after eight years, Setanta Sports, looks set to end its endorsement, thus threatening the competition's future.

Following in the tradition of the short-lived Blaxnit Cup of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Setanta Sports Cup is what is known as an all-Ireland competition, which draws together the top teams from the Irish Premiership and the Airtricity Premier Division. On the whole, the competition has conjured up some intriguing encounters, but it has suffered from the undeniable political undertones which are attached to certain games, arising out of the all-too recent conflict that occurred in Northern Ireland.

Fans, using their team as a vehicle for cultural expression, adorn the terraces with national flags and sing provocative, sometimes wholly inflammatory, songs. One such example came recently, during the first leg of the quarter final between Shamrock Rovers and Linfield on March 4, when Linfield fans were heard to chant the infamous 'Billy Boys' song.

Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) MLA for South Belfast Conall McDevitt believes that it is important to acknowledge that sectarian behaviour at football games is not confined to followers of teams in the north. "We need to face up to the fact that sectarianism in Ireland, north and south, in unionism and Irish nationalism, is an issue we have to acknowledge does exist, and it does manifest itself in soccer," he told Goal.com. "I think we need to acknowledge that nobody is immune from having to take full responsibility for the fact that sectarian tensions are present in sport."

KEEP IT ON THE PITCH| Setanta Sports Cup tensions have sometimes spilled off the pitch

Indeed, fans of teams in both leagues have been implicated in sectarian behaviour before, during and after games, where it sometimes verges on riotous. For instance, the rivalry between Derry City and Linfield is particularly entrenched and in the 2012 quarter final at Windsor Park, a section of the Candystripes' support vandalised the hosts' venue. "We had thugs purporting to be supporters who basically ripped up seating at Windsor Park during the last Setanta Sports Cup game and we must put that right," Derry City chairman Philip O'Doherty told the Derry Journal.

However, wanton behaviour was not exclusive to clashes with Linfield, as a minority of Candystripes fans also attacked a bus carrying supporters of the Dublin-based side Bohemians the week before. Elsewhere, in the same season, during a Setanta Sports Cup clash between Sligo Rovers and Glentoran, a Glentoran supporters' bus was broken into and items were stolen, and in a grotesque twist, human excrement was even deposited inside the vehicle.

The return leg between Shamrock Rovers and Linfield takes place on Monday March 11 at Windsor Park, and there is potential for another flare up in tensions, given the incidents that took place at Tallaght in the first leg. However, Sinn Féin TD for Dublin South-West, Sean Crowe, is hopeful that football can emerge as the winner. "The last time these sides played in a competitive match in 1984, it was one of the largest football security operations this state had ever seen. It shows how far we have come that this match needed much less of a security operation," Crowe told Goal.com. "And hopefully football can continued to be used to bring communities on this island together."

Conall McDevitt similarly believes in the positive potential of the Setanta Sports Cup and believes that  supporters have a responsibility to minimize inappropriate and confrontational behaviour. "There is a huge duty on fan associations and organisations to self-regulate, to promote a pro-football culture and an anti-sectarian and anti-hate culture - to eliminate songs, chanting, behaviour, that could only be seen as sectarian or divisive, from their repertoire," he said.

He continued: "You shouldn't have to face the threat of prosecution to know that when you come to a football game, you're about football. If you're travelling, you're about enjoying the hospitality of another city, understanding and appreciating its cultures and its values. I see the return leg as an opportunity to do that and to isolate the minority of fans on both sides who would use it as an opportunity for hate."

Indeed, if the financial sustainability of the Setanta Sports Cup is under threat through lack of investment, then its precarious future is only exacerbated by the mindless displays of bigotry and violence that have so-far characterised too many of its games.