League of Ireland fans proudly claim to be followers of the Greatest League in The World. It's a belief that may not be shared by those who have never squeezed through the turnstiles of Dalymount Park, squinted to view the action at The Carlisle Grounds through the setting sun or feasted on curry chips from Turner’s Cross. 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and a familiarity with the nuances of the SSE Airtricity League is required to spot that beauty. Ask any fan from Azerbaijan to Argentina and they will present to you a strongly held argument for their own league’s virtues. 

But perhaps an argument can be made that the Greatest Cup Final in The World is played here in Ireland.

For 14 years, not a single FAI Cup final has failed to produce some level of drama. The 2006 back and forth tussle between St. Pat’s and Derry City which saw the Saints agony extended in the competition for another year was the last to be played at the old Lansdowne Road.

It saw seven goals, extra-time and a team come from behind twice to triumph in a final which has received critical acclaim ever since. But rather than standing out, cup finals since then have largely followed its pattern with their own unique elements added. 

That is not to say that there were not often epic games before that. Just two years before, Longford Town scored twice in the final four minutes to become just the third club to have retained the trophy. And between 1990 and 2002, just once was the cup final decided by more than a single goal. 

We compared FAI Cup finals over the last 14 years to those from the leading leagues in Europe, those of our neighbours and a sample of other leagues around Europe: 

Country 

Penalty shootouts 

Extra-time 

90/120th min + goals 

90/120th min + winner 

Decided by 1 goal/pens 

Ireland

5 9 6 3 13
England 0 3 2 1 12
Scotland 1 1 2 2 8
N. Ireland 1 3 1 0 8
Wales 0 2 2 1 4
Italy 2 3 3 0 7
Spain 0 3 1 0 5
Germany 1 4 3 0 6
Finland 3 5 2 0 12
Austria 0 3 1 0 6
Denmark  1 3 2 1 9
Holland 2 3 1 0 5

No other country’s cup final listed above has had the number of penalty shoot-outs, extra-times, late goals, tight games or late winners as the FAI Cup. 

The only occasion in the last 14 years that the final wasn’t decided by a single goal or penalties was St. Pat’s win in 2012. However, the second goal in that win did not come until stoppage time and given the Saints 53-year wait for success in the competition not a single fan took the outcome as decided until the final whistle. 

It is not just about close, exciting games though. What the FAI Cup final is also doing is showcasing the best teams in the country.

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The below table shows the number of teams who come first or second in their league that season who also contested the cup final. Over half of the teams who have reached this marquee fixture in the last 14 years have been league champions or runners-up – that is more than for any of the countries in our sample. 

It has given us contests such as the continuation of the battles for the league title in recent years between Cork City and Dundalk spill over into contests for the cup as well. 

Country Champions in final Runners-up in final Total
Ireland 8 7 15
England 4 2 6
Scotland 6 4 10
N. Ireland  7 3 10
Wales 8 1 9
Italy 9 4 13
Spain 6 4 10
Germany 10 4 14
Finland  5 2 7
Austria 9 1 10
Denmark 5 6 11
Holland 4 5 9

But can 2020 follow the tradition of drama-filled finals? The way Shamrock Rovers have dominated this season, including a 4-0 the last time they played Dundalk, will make them strong favourites.

Not to mention how Dundalk will be returning from Europa League action just three days before in Norway. 

The Shamrock Rovers supremacy has been historic. It is difficult to compare a half season to others with a full quota of games, but the numbers are startling on a per game basis. 

They recorded 2.67 points per game, that is only bettered in the full history of the league (assuming three points per win) by the 1928-29 Shelbourne team when they had 2.72 over an 18-game season. It is also well ahead of the previous summer era best of 2.58 by the 2008 Bohemians team. 

They scored a blistering 2.44 goals per game. That is the most of any team since the Shamrock Rovers team of 1983-84 who had 2.46. It is much better than Dundalk’s 2.36 marks which had been the summer era’s best from the 2015 and 2018 seasons. 

The league champions have been impressive in a truncated season

At the other end, their defensive record in allowing 0.39 per game stands as the best of all time. It barely squeezes of the aforementioned Bohs team by 0.005 of a goal! 

They will stand equal with their 1924-25 and 1926-27 teams as the only in history to finish a league season unbeaten. The first of those also won the FAI Cup. 

Flipping to their opponents and there is any amount of numbers that can be used to demonstrate the collapse of Dundalk in 2020. 

They lost more times in this year’s 18-game season than they had in the previous 57 games. 

The Lilywhites scored 35% fewer goals, conceded 156% more goals and ended up with 40% fewer points all on a per game basis. 

But results in the FAI Cup indicate there is cause for hope. 

The only time Shamrock Rovers have trailed by two goals domestically this season was in the FAI Cup quarter-final with Finn Harps when they had to dig their way out of a difficult situation in Finn Park with two Aaron McEneff penalties.

In only three of their last 14 domestic games have the Hoops failed to keep a clean sheet and one of the others was their previous cup tie against Cork City. The relegated Rebels were not defeated until Daniel Lafferty’s 68th minute winner.

Just four of their last 12 domestic games were won by less than a goal and two of those four were cup ties. Their league dominance has not been as strong when participating in the cup. 

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The FAI Cup has had the opposite effect on Dundalk’s fortunes. They had just seven domestic wins since the re-start and four of those were in the cup. Just one of their league wins was by more than a solitary goal while their cup aggregate score is 18-1. That included the biggest win in the near 100-year history of the competition over the unfortunate Athlone Town. 

This is the time of year when we are encouraged to believe in the magic of Christmas. But the magic of the FAI Cup has remained alive in its recent finals.

Hopefully, that is repeated this Sunday and a dramatic win would make either Stephen Bradley or Filippo Giovagnoli even merrier when they find this year’s must-have present, the FAI Cup, under their tree of December 25th. 

Follow the FAI Cup final via our live blog on RTÉ.ie/sport or the RTÉ News app, watch live on RTÉ2 and the RTÉ Player or listen to commentary on RTÉ Radio 1 Extra.

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