THIS weekend brings an end to the 2021 League of Ireland campaign as Bohemians and St Patrick’s Athletic go head-to-head in the FAI Cup final.
Those players will be itching to take to the Aviva Stadium and perhaps Bohs' experience of playing in the stadium already this season with their European games will give them a slight advantage. Although Pat's finished second in the table and are slight favourites, there is more pressure on Keith Long’s team to triumph.
Last week’s 1-1 draw against Sligo Rovers means that Bohs missed out on qualification for Europe through the league and are relying on winning the cup if they are to be competing in Europe again next season.
Will failure to qualify for Europe mean that Bohs will be unable to hang onto their best players and will it be another big rebuilding job for Long in the off-season? Defeat for Bohs would be a lot more damaging than it would for St Pat’s.
Both sets of players will be itching to take to the field after weeks of waiting.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in two cup final buildups but was unfortunate when it came to the final. I vividly remember in 2018 with Cork City, beating Bohs in the semi-final and the change in the atmosphere it created around the club.
We knew at that stage we had blown our chance of winning back-to-back titles but knowing there was a cup final ahead of us gave us something to go training for. The excitement and positive atmosphere around the training ground was something that cannot be replicated.
Throughout the season; players do have off days in training and would play ‘hide and seek’ in certain drills, meaning that rather than get really involved in possession drills or matches, a player would do just about enough to get through a session.
In possession; rather than try and find space to receive the ball, they would stand close to an opponent because that way they knew they wouldn’t receive the ball.
That was certainly not the case when it came to training sessions leading up to the cup final because every player was fearful that one bad training session could see them miss out on playing at the Aviva.
Of course, I do have that experience of missing out on two finals and it is tough for those Pats and Bohs players who sit on the bench or in the stand.
The week before the final starts off with such enthusiasm but that can turn to disappear when you realise you won’t be starting in the final.
With City; I always assumed I would start the final. I was always asked to stay behind after training to work on my hold-up play but in the week before the game, that changed.
I know it’s tough being a manager and there is never a right time to tell a player he isn’t starting, but for me; I always think a manager should name his starting team and squad, the week before the game, and not wait until the last minute.
That way players aren’t second-guessing the team all week and players can get over the disappointment of being dropped rather than having to deal with that disappointment the day before the game.
When I look back on my career; not starting that 2018 cup final is still something that I have not gotten over.
When I first knew I wasn’t going to be starting my initial feeling was not disappointment but embarrassment.
I was thinking about how I was going to tell my family that after weeks of me talking about nothing else than the final that I wasn’t even going to be playing in it.
At least with City, they had some warning I was going to be on the bench but with Shamrock Rovers, although I knew I wasn’t going to be starting, they only found out an hour before kick-off (as did I) that I wasn’t going to be involved at all.
That was another embarrassing moment dragging my family up from Cork to watch a game I wasn’t involved in, especially when that morning in the hotel, we were shown a video by the club of good luck messages from our families.
Finals are special moments for a player, and my advice for those Bohs and Pats players would be to just enjoy every moment of it no matter what their involvement will be.