Is it just me or does it feel like we're hopping from cup competition to more cup competition at the minute? Last week we had the Bob Kerr and National cups and this weekend there is more in store with the Ulster Cup on Sunday preceded by the quarter final ties in the Northern Bank senior cup on Saturday. Despite the feast of competitions however there is little doubt that for the vast majority of players and clubs here, the Northern Bank Senior Cup is the one they hanker after the most. Quite why that would be the case is difficult to explain although the history and tradition of the competition is certainly ingrained in the annals of the sport around these parts.
The old trophy has a battered and bruised look about it these days but that matters little to the team that lifts it on the last weekend in July and its charisma definitely far outweighs the competition's limitations. At a time when changes are sweeping across the region the senior cup seems to have escaped much of the interest and that is probably no bad thing for now. Before the Union embraced the 8-team league structure however the senior cup competition was crying out for new life to be breathed into it. The odd number of teams meant that there had to be preliminary rounds and for some strange reason those were “seeded” to exclude Division 1 clubs, immediately making it more difficult for Division 2 clubs to progress.
For a lot of second tier clubs the senior cup is fraught with danger because the chances of any of them winning it have been remote in the extreme for the past zillion years. Conversely for the likes of Killyclooney or Sion the arrival of Bready or Limavady at their door may be fine for a show of bravado in the pub the week before but the reality is that 99 out of 100 such contests results in a pummelling. The fact that the North West goes to two eight- team leagues from next season facilitates a proper, unbiased draw from now on and will obviously also take one or two of the weaker sides out of the equation. You have to remember that this isn't like the FA cup where the “minnows” stand to make huge sums of money by being drawn against the big boys- all that Killyclooney stood to gain by playing Coleraine this season was, well, FA.
The format of the cup final itself is probably the reason why it is coveted by so many, being as it is that the North West now facilitates the only two-day finals on the island, and long may that last. A two-day final is the thing that sets the senior cup apart and brings people from all over the province to see it and for those lucky enough to play in it, it's magic is unmistakeable. I can't count the number of club captains I have interviewed over the past number of years who refused to put the trophy below the league title in terms of which they prized the most. When Bready won it last season most people believed that they would set their sights on a league challenge next but when I chatted to Davy Scanlon a few weeks back he couldn't split them. His exact reply was “I would love to be the skipper who brings the league trophy to Magheramason but I know what winning the senior cup meant to this club last year and we are desperate to do it again”.
You would think that Ian McGregor would be tired preparing for senior finals but you should go and ask him if the competition still matters and what it would mean to him to take Coleraine to one. And see the look in Gordon Montgomery's eye when you ask him what the senior cup final means to him. On a personal note the senior final is my favourite weekend in the domestic calendar. My first, tenuous involvement was as a 13-year old 12th “man” in 1974 when Waterside were thrashed by a Donemana side that from memory included Davy Caldwell and Ken Kerrigan. I also had the pleasure of umpiring one with Billy Boyd when Decker Curry and Kamran Akmal were strutting their stuff for Limavady against Glendermott in 2003. Connie McAllister who has been involved in a number of finals as an official always maintains that despite appearing in 5 deciders for Ardmore and finishing on the losing side in all of them that “no other participation comes close to playing”.
Realistically the competition could probably do with freshening up at some stage but for now why fix something that isn't broken? The biggest challenge facing the cup in the immediate future is the fact that the two-day decider is moving out of its comfort zone over the next number of years. There has been much debate recently about the fact that Bready should be getting more big games and I don't think there's any doubt about that, however their reputation will be on the line in just over a month when they take over the show-piece reins. Eglinton, and indeed Brigade before them turned the senior cup final into an institution and Bready must leave nothing to chance to ensure that they do it justice but I have no doubt they already know that.
Good luck then to all eight teams involved in Saturday's quarter finals and here's hoping that we'll soon be looking forward to another wonderful weekend of cricket at the end of July.