By Ronan Murphy
The Setanta Sports Cup has been a fixture of the Irish sporting calendar for the past seven years, seeing teams from the Republic of Ireland face off against their Northern Ireland counterparts. However, despite being a relatively new competition, it is actually the sixth cross-border championship.
The first competition to feature both FAI and IFA clubs was the Dublin and Belfast Inter-City Cup. Started during World War 2, the event proved to be a great distraction from wartime matters, with six sides competing in the annual event from 1941 to 1949. Shamrock Rovers were the dominant team throughout the competition's relatively short history, winning the title four times, despite not lifting a single League of Ireland trophy during the 1940s.
The North-South Cup was its successor, but lasted just two seasons from 1960 to 1962. Problems with scheduling saw matches being postponed, and the 1961 final was actually only played in the 61-62 season due to fixture congestion. Linfield won the first trophy with Glenavon lifting the second. In fact, the North-South Cup was one of six different domestic competitions Linfield contested in the 1960-61 season.
The Blaxnit Cup ran from 1967 to 1974, and received its unusual moniker from a Newtonards sock company. An eight-team tournament, it featured the four semi-finalists from each association's domestic cup, seeing Coleraine lift the trophy twice. Each final was a north versus south affair, with only Shamrock Rovers and Cork Hibernians bringing the trophy back to the Republic.
Like the North-South Cup, the Texaco Cup and Tyler Cups were short-lived competitions, both held in the 1970s. Named the Texaco All-Ireland Cup in its first year, the trophy was an Irish version of the British Texaco Cup, which featured club sides who had failed to qualify for Europe. Portadown won the first title in 1974, with Waterford lifting the trophy the following year. The Tyler Cup lasted four seasons, with two winners from Northern Ireland and two from the Republic, while all four runners-up were League of Ireland clubs.
The Troubles halted any real chance of an all-Ireland club trophy in the 1980s, and the format didn't return until 2005, thanks to the sponsorship of the Setanta Sports television channel.
The inaugural Setanta Cup saw Linfield lift the title with a 2-0 win over Shelbourne. The clash at Tolka Park was an exciting affair, with 1,500 travelling supporters in attendance after the game was moved to 7.30 to allow fans to watch the English FA Cup between Arsenal and Manchester United earlier in the day. There were many entertaining encounters in both of the three-team groups, with Wes Hoolahan shining in midfield for Shelbourne as they overcame Cork City and Portadown en route to the final. Linfield progressed comfortably from Group A, winning three of four games against Longford Town and Glentoran. The Irish League side started well at Tolka Park in the final, and were two up at the break thanks to goals from Glenn Ferguson and Peter Thompson. Shels were furious in the second-half as Dungannon referee Mark Courtney failed to send off both Michael Gault and Tim Mouncey, while they grew even more frustrated late on with Jason Byrne dismissed for dissent before Alan Moore received his marching orders for using abusive language towards the match official.
Setanta Sports Cup 2006 | Declan O'Brien lifts the trophy as Drogheda United captain
After the success of the first season, the rebranded Setanta Sports Cup expanded to feature eight teams, and the final was an all FAI affair, with Linfield the only Northern Irish side advancing from the Group Stages. Drogheda United defeated Cork City in the final at Tolka Park, but needed extra-time to defeat their League of Ireland opponents. Substitute Keith Fahey was involved in the build-up to the decider, setting up the move which ended in Mark Leech scoring the game's only goal in the 102nd minute to see Drogs crowned as the first League of Ireland champions.
In a strange series of events, the eight teams which contested the 2007 Setanta Sports Cup were identical to the previous year's participants. However, Shelbourne's financial woes which led to their demotion to the First Division, saw them withdraw to be replaced by St Patrick's Athletic. The final was another North-South affair, as Windsor Park hosted Linfield and Drogheda United. A tense final ended 1-1 with Damien Lynch having missed a penalty kick in normal time. However, Drogs were much more accurate from the spot in the shootout, and two penalty saves from Mikko Vilmunen saw them lift the title for the second time.
Turners Cross was chosen to host the 2008 Final after Cork City defeated Derry City to set up a final with Glentoran. Glens were the only Irish League side to reach the last four once again, but defeated Drogheda in the emi-final despite two sendings off. Cork lifted the title in front of 5,500 fans in their hometown, coming from behind to win 2-1 thanks to goals from Dan Murray and Liam Kearney.
The 2009-10 edition of the tournament saw the competition expand to nine teams - three groups of three teams. St Patrick's Athletic joined the three group winners as the best runners-up, and recorded a 6-1 aggregate victory over Sligo Rovers to reach the final. They met Bohemians at Tallaght Stadium, with Anthony Murphy heading in Killian Brennan's corner to give the Gypsies their first taste of Setanta success.
The sixth Setanta Sports Cup added three more teams, to turn it into a 12 team knockout competition. The two-legged ties threw up some high-scoring games, with an average of over three goals scored in every game. In fact, Cliftonville's quarter-final win over Crusaders was 10-6 on aggregate. After the free-scoring earlier stages, the final was a relatively low-scoring event, with Shamrock Rovers scoring twice to defeat Dundalk at Tallaght Stadium. Gary O'Neill gave the hosts the lead before Billy Dennehy guaranteed the tie in stoppage time.
The final returned to Belfast in 2012, with the trophy remaining in Northern Ireland for the first time in seven years after Crusaders defeated Derry City on penalties. Derry looked to have won the game with an 80th minute strike from Rory Patterson, but Colin Coates headed in five minutes later to level the tie. The duo both got their names on the scoresheet again in extra time, while Stephen McBride was sent off for Crues. However, a great penalty save from Sean O'Neill on Dermot McCaffrey saw Stephen Baxter's side add to their Irish Cup final victory from the previous weekend.