In 2016-17 the SPFL (Scottish Professional Football League) expanded their Scottish Challenge Cup competition to include two representatives from Wales and Northern Ireland respectively alongside Scottish Premiership U20 sides and further places for Highland and Lowland league sides. In 2017-18 this process went one step further by inviting two League of Ireland representatives to join the fold.
Not for the first time
Cross-country competitions are nothing new to the UK and Irish leagues with several non-English sides having previously competed in the English FA Cup many moons ago. This along with many infantry regiments having played their part in our own Irish Cup, Gordon Highlanders an early winner of that competition in 1890, and of course several southern based Irish clubs before the football and political partitions deprived us of that company.
Locally there have been many cross-border competitions from the Dublin and Belfast Intercity Cup, North-South Cup, Blaxnit Cup, Tyler Cup and most recently the Setanta Sports Cup which was the cause of much consternation due to concerns over fixture scheduling.
The Scottish Challenge Cup was invented as a separate competition for Scottish Clubs beneath the top tier of Scottish football in the SFL/SPFL league system, later expansion bringing in clubs beneath the professional levels.
A chance well taken for some
Invitations like this are always met with some degree of opposition, the main argument being that it is simply another distraction for clubs who already have a number of domestic cups to compete in. For NI based clubs there can be as many as six active senior competitions in a season when the league and Europe are factored in. Personally, I feel clubs should welcome this opportunity as a golden chance to test themselves against a higher level of opposition and for the younger players it is an added stage to showcase their talents in pursuit of that much treaded pathway across the water to professional football.
The four Irish sides to take part this season were Sligo Rovers, Bray Wanderers, Linfield and Crusaders. All four entered the competition in the second round. Bray Wanderers exited at the hands of a 2-0 loss away to Elgin City while Sligo Rovers lost out 2-1 to Falkirk at The Showgrounds. Linfield secured a 2-1 victory over Spartans in Edinburgh before a last-minute loss to Dundee United in the third round at Tannadice Park. Crusaders overcame Scottish Premiership’s Motherwell U20 side 3-2 at Seaview and followed that up with a third-round win over Cove Rangers, 3-0 at Station Park in Forfar. A last gasp winner from Gavin Whyte in the Quarter Final in a 2-1 victory over Dundee United set up a semi-final clash against Inverness Caledonian Thistle who were relegated from the Scottish Premiership last season.
ICT raced into a 3-goal lead by half time but some second half resolve from Crusaders, aided by a red card for the home side’s Brad McKay, saw the score closed to 3-2 before a late Declan Caddell red card – two quick bookings, the first for a foul giving away a penalty with the second for dissent. Iain Vigurs missed the subsequent penalty in the dying seconds. ICT will play fellow Scottish side Dumbarton in the final after they overcame Welsh Premier team The New Saints in the other semi-final.
In as much as there are many positives for the clubs from a footballing perspective, it should also be acknowledged that this provided a decent level of excitement for local fans with a midseason away trip for cup fixtures against the Scottish sides. Alongside this there were two televised games for Irish sides, one for Linfield and Crusaders each on BBC Alba.
It would be great to see this link up continue for all the reasons mentioned above and not least because it gives local sides the chance to show that they have the ability to compete. Irish sides, north and south, have an array of talent at their disposal and deserve this platform to show that.