After the "sickening" experience of walking past the trophy after the 2011 decider, Eastern Region IRL captain Kenneth Hoey hopes all bad memories can be erased with victory in Saturday's UEFA Regions' Cup final against Zagreb.
The home side at the finals in Dublin, Gerry Smith's side have earned a second chance to get their hands on the biggest prize in amateur football at Tallaght Stadium, and 34-year-old postman Hoey – playing at his fourth final tournament – knows how much it would mean to get gold medals, having been runners-up in Portugal in 2011. "Jeez, it'd be huge," he told UEFA.com. "Top off my soccer, and be the highest thing I could win at amateur level."
The various Irish teams, managed by engineer Smith, have embodied the spirit of the competition; selections of ordinary working men, who take amateur football very seriously. Organised, on and off the pitch (Hoey says: We're very disciplined in our shape – we're a very hard team to break down), their finals experience has been anything but fun according to Smith, though Hoey added: "It'll be fun if we win."
A joy to watch regardless, Eastern Region IRL were impressively purposeful in winning their three Group A games, and Smith knows what they are made of. "You play to your strengths," the coach explained. "The European teams have great technical abilities, great touch and certain things that we will never have no matter how often we try – but they'll never get the stuff we have."
Smith's side come into the final with no injury concerns; Sreten Ćuk's Zagreb have been less fortunate. No8 Božidar Karamatić is out with a knee problem, and right-winger Antun Strajčki is suspended – both serious blows for the first Croatian side to reach the final of a UEFA tournament since independence. However, given that Ćuk reckoned his side as rank outsiders from the off, Zagreb are not to be underestimated.
"If someone was putting money on the match, it would be 60-40 to the Irish," Ćuk said. "They will be much fresher than we are; they play at home and they will have support of their families, and from my way of thinking they are favourites. They have no injuries – the whole world is going their way. We are dark horses, but the dark horses caused a surprise in the group – maybe we can be dark horses of the final."
Zagreb won all of their Group B games, and have at times played some beautiful football, their powerful forward and captain Željko Štulec exemplifying their mixture of silky and steely. The 32-year-old rolling stock factory worker knows, moreover, that a big prize is at stake in Dublin: "It would be a very big achievement; a great next step for the younger players and a great way for the older ones to finish their careers."
The Croatian side's coach characterised the finals as a clash of footballing cultures; the "continental style" of Zagreb and the more typically British Isles approach of Eastern Region IRL. "If the match is run-and-gun, they are going to win, but if it's passing on the ground, our chances start to even up," Ćuk said. What is most likely is that it will be neither. Eastern Region IRL are more than determined workhorses, and Zagreb are not a soft touch.
It might not be pretty, and it might not be ugly, but it should be quite some game.
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