Bringing Football Fans Together: The Setanta Cup

Kevin Brannigan reports

This season’s all-island Setanta Cup ended with Pat Fenlon pick­ing up his fifth title as Bohemians manager with his side overcoming Dublin rivals St. Patrick’s Athletic at Tallaght Stadium.

The 2009/10 Setanta Cup was the fifth instalment of the cross-border competition and the fourth year in a row in which a team from the League of Ireland has won the competition, Linfield being the first and only Irish League team to have claimed the trophy, winning in the Cup’s inaugural year of 2005.

This ‘southern’, dominance of the competition has, over the years, threatened the very existence of the competition with Linfield being the most vocal of the Irish League teams in their threats to pull out of the competition. The Belfast club has cited the supposed advantage League of Ireland teams have had over their northern counterparts with the latter stages of the Cup being played at the end of the Irish League season.

While such a withdrawal would spell disaster for the legitimacy of the Cup, it has never been followed through on.

Before a ball had been kicked in this season’s Cup, the financial meltdown of Setanta in Britain seriously threatened the competi­tions future as it looked as though the Setanta Cup was about to go the way of previous cross-border challenge cups such as the Tyler Cup which ran from 1978 – 1980 and the Texaco Cup which lasted for two tournaments between 1973 and 1975.      

This latest cross-border com­petition has bucked a tradition of failure and is scheduled in again for season 2010/11, with the Cup now set to run from February through to May as a knockout tournament involving six teams from either side of the border.

If the Setanta Cup had gone the way of its predecessors, it would have been for solely financial reasons rather than security related ones, as the much hyped expected re-run of the disturbances wit­nessed around Phisborough and inner city Dublin when Glasgow Rangers came to town in 1984 never materialised with the visit of Linfield to Dublin 7 in mid-April.

Trouble though did flare during Bohemians’ group stage draw with Glentoran in March, with Gardaí batoning Glentoran fans in the Dalymount Shed End during the game.

Speaking after the event Glen­toran Director and Belfast City Councillor, Jim Rodgers said it was not the first occasion that Irish League fans had experienced trou­ble in the Republic. “I would have to point the finger at the policing, which left a lot to be desired,” he said. “We’ve seen it before with Linfield fans. Instead of operating a sensible policing policy, they go at it like a bull in a china shop, it doesn’t help community rela­tions. The Garda Síochána need specialist training in how to handle crowds. We see it with Trade Union demonstrations down south, they seem to overreact.”

While tribalism remains present in the stands in the form of chant­ing and emblems on flags, the last five years has also seen fans from opposite sides of the border pre­sented with opportunities to enter areas they once would have never dared venture.

Followers of Linfield have drunk in the bars of Dalymount Park, Drogheda supporters have forged links with Portadown sup­porters while during this season’s Coleraine v Bohemians game, Bohs fans, bored with the onfield fare, took the opportunity to spend the second half drinking in the Coleraine social club.

The success of the Setanta Cup should be measured not in terms of onfield wins and losses but the above stories of supporter interac­tions.

While Platinum One’s attempts to forge an all-island league seem to have lost momentum, the Se­tanta Cup has proven that the scare stories of supporter violence are unfounded and has also created the forum in which to start seriously discussing how an all-island league can be negotiated in conjunction with the two footballing associa­tions and the governing bodies UEFA and FIFA, rather than a corporate-driven initiative.