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RETRO: 1981 – Mick’s Unforgettable Year

History Features
// 11 Nov 2020

In a piece written for Monday night’s DFC Magazine, Padraig McGowan looks back at the 1981 FAI Cup final between Dundalk FC and, Sligo Rovers, a game which capped an unforgettable year for Mick Fairclough. 

As I was sitting down to write this piece for, it was announced that both Sean Murray and Daniel Cleary had been nominated for the SSE Airtricity SWAI Player of the Month award for October. 

It’s well-deserved recognition for both players; Dan’s excellent defensive play earning him the nomination and, of course, Sean’s goalscoring escapades in the Europa League being the highlight of his recent performances! The Lilywhites midfielder scored crucial goals against Sheriff Tiraspol and KI Klaksvik in the Europa League qualifiers and again against Molde FK on MD1 of the Europa League group stages. 

Sean’s goalscoring exploits mean that he is only the second-ever player in the club’s history to score goals in three consecutive European games, with one of my boyhood heroes, Mick Fairclough, being the first!

Mick’s run came in the European Cup Winners Cup back in 1981. He scored in both legs of the win against Icelandic side Fram Reykjavik while he also bagged the equalising goal in the home leg of the glamour tie against Tottenham Hotspur! (Hopefully, there’ll be more about that in the Arsenal programme although I’d imagine that editor permission will be required on that front!)

After spending the 1970/71 season with Drogheda United, an 18-year-old Fairclough was signed by Huddersfield Town in August 1971. In September 1973, as he was terrorising the Walsall defence during a league game, one of the opposition’s defenders decided he’d taken enough of Mick’s twists and turns and planted his boot on the side of Fairclough’s knee. 

The injury was a bad one; a detached medial ligament completely damaging the cruciate ligament. After spending time in the hospital, Mick was told that his football career was over and in 1974, aged just 22, he returned to his hometown of Drogheda and gradually started to piece his life back together. 

Four years later, in 1978, a chance meeting with Jim McLaughlin outside a chemist shop in Drogheda paved the way for Mick’s return to football. Jim suggested that Mick should get in touch with the legendary Glentoran and Northern Ireland physio, Bobby McGregor, and it proved to be the catalyst for Mick’s comeback.

McGregor worked his magic on Fairclough and in March 1980, six years after he was officially written off, Mick returned to top-flight football with reigning League of Ireland champions Dundalk. His first act was to come off the bench and nod home a priceless equaliser against Shamrock Rovers at Milltown. 

Dundalk finished the 1979/80 season as runners up, trailing Limerick by just a single point at the season’s end, but during the following campaign, 1980/81, Mick hit the headlines, both domestically and in Europe!

That brings us nicely to the connection with this evening’s visitors…

Dundalk qualified for the European Cup Winners Cup by beating Sligo Rovers in the 1981 FAI Cup final at Dalymount Park. The Lilywhites finished the league season six points behind first-time league champions, Athlone Town, then managed by a certain Turlough O’Connor, but collected silverware that January, winning the League Cup by defeating Galway Rovers on penalties after two scoreless legs.  

The victorious 1980/81 FAI Cup campaign began with a hard-fought 1-0 win against non-league side Hammond Lane in the third round and replays were needed at Oriel Park in the fourth round and the quarter-final against St Patrick’s Athletic and Drogheda United respectively. 

Victories in those rounds set up a semi-final showdown with Finn Harps at Milltown on April 5th, 1981. Prior to the game, Fairclough’s old knee injury flared up and he was only passed fit to play before the match. The gamble Mick paid off, though, and with just 13 minutes on the clock Willie Crawley’s shot was parried by the Harps ‘keeper and Fairclough was on hand to convert the rebound. 

Harps finished the game with 10 men when Con McLoughlin was sent off after what can only be described as a ‘dispute’ with Dermot Keely and Dundalk saw it out to qualify for their third FAI Cup final in the space of five years!

The decider took place at a windswept Dalymount on Sunday, April 26th 1981, with Dundalk starting out as strong favourites. Keely captained the side, forming part of the legendary back five of Blackmore, McConville, Lawlor, Keely and Dunning. 

The high winds put paid to any prospect of an attractive game of football and disaster almost struck in the first minute when Keely and McConville clashed heads as they both went to clear a ball in the corner! As a result, Tommy Mac sported various bandages for the remainder of the game while Keely played on with a nasty cut above his left eye which required a number of stitches afterwards. Needless to say, Dermot would not contemplate leaving the field of play during the match for treatment!

The first half was a fairly even and nondescript affair with Sligo probably having the best chance to open the scoring. Vinny McKenna’s back pass fell short and Harry McLoughlin ended up going through on goal but Blackmore made a great save to deny the Bit o’Red. Dundalk’s best chance fell to Sean Byrne whose shot was well saved by Declan McIntyre. 

The deadlock was broken after just seven minutes of the second half when Dundalk, attacking the school end, won a corner on the Connaught Street side of the ground and John Archbold’s delivery was caught by the strong breeze and flew straight into the back of the Sligo net.

I’ve always felt that Sean Byrne contributed greatly to the goal. Positioning himself right in front of McIntyre, it left the Sligo Rovers goalkeeper unsighted and he totally misjudged the flight of the ball!

Nineteen-year-old Charlie McGeever was probably Sligo’s best player on the day and he saw an excellent header tipped over the bar by Blackmore as Rovers sought an elusive equaliser. Later in the half, he also had a shot parried away by the Lilywhites goalkeeper with the arch predator, Brendan Bradley, blazing the rebound wide. As it turned out, that was probably Sligo’s best chance of levelling the game. 

Willie Crawley and Jim McLaughlin celebrate Dundalk’s FAI Cup win over Sligo Rovers at Dalymount Park in 1981. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

With the game heading into the concluding stages, and Sligo pressing forward in numbers, Fairclough seized his chance. Sean Byrne cleared a long ball from the edge of his box and Mick picked up possession just inside the Sligo half. 

With only Paddy Sheridan for company, Fairclough eluded the centre-back’s despairing lunge and his pace brought him through on goal with only McIntyre to beat. The ball bobbled just as he went to connect but he managed to lift it over the keeper and even though he was upended in the resulting collision, the ball nestled in the back of the Sligo net. 

The goal ensured that the cup returned to the border for the third time in five years but after losing five previous finals, it was more heartbreak for Sligo Rovers. They finally made the breakthrough three years later, bringing the cup west for the first time by beating Bohemians in the final. 

For Fairclough, it was a personal triumph. Ten years earlier he lined out as an 18-year-old for Drogheda United in the 1971 FAI Cup final against Limerick, the Drogs losing after a replay. Now, he had not only confounded medical advice by coming back to play senior football after a terrible injury but had also won an FAI Cup medal and scored a goal in the final to boot!  

To be continued………………            

You can download issue 11 of the DFC Magazine free of charge at this link.