Don’t you remember? They called me Al

Quiz question – no phones, no Google – who is the oldest player ever to feature in a UEFA club competition?

Think about it… Champions League, oldest player… must be a keeper, Dino Zoff maybe? Someone from the Cup Winners Cup back in the day, lying about their age maybe?

Well the answer gets a little complicated, the records for the Champions League/European Cup show several players in their 40’s who featured in preliminary qualifying rounds, including Pasquale D’Orsi and former Roma midfielder Damiano Tommasi who both featured for teams from San Marino at 47 and 44 years old respectively. Sandwiched in between them is Northern Irish goalkeeper Mickey Keenan who lined out for Portadown FC against Belarus side Belshina Bobruisk back in 2002 aged 46.

In all these instances these players were on the losing side of a qualifying round game, however another Irishman played in UEFA competition proper, at the age of 43 years and 261 days, breaking a record held by Italian World Cup winner Dino Zoff. That man was Al Finucane and he set this milestone when he lined out against Bordeaux in the first round of the Cup Winners Cup in September 1986.

This was no mean Bordeaux side, they were in the middle of one of their most successful periods under the stewardship of future World Cup winning manager Aimé Jacquet. That same season they would win the French league and cup double to add to their French cup triumph from the previous year. Their squad included the likes of classy midfielder Jean Tigana and fellow French internationals René Girard, Patrick Battiston and the unfortunately named goalkeeper Dominique Dropsy. There was an international element to their line-ups as well with Croation twins Zoran and Zlatko Vujovic who were both Yugoslavia internationals at the time, they even had a German international, striker Uwe Reinders. A stern challenge for a Waterford side who were only in the Cup Winners Cup as losing finalists after Shamrock Rovers had won the league and cup double the previous season.

Not that Waterford were without international experience themselves. Al Finucane had won 11 Irish caps, granted the most recent of those had come some 15 years earlier, but there were also Noel Synott and Tony Macken, both veterans aged 35 and 36 respectively who had previously been capped by Ireland. There was a dash of youth in the Waterford side with a teenage Paul Cashin in midfield making a name for himself by nutmegging Jean Tigana during the home leg of the tie.

Finucane also had plenty of experience in European competition in addition to his international caps, during his long League of Ireland career which stretched back to his Limerick debut in 1960, Al had featured against the likes of Torino, CSKA Sofia, IFK Göteborg, Southampton, Dinamo Tbilisi and even scored a goal against Hibernians of Malta at the age of 37 as he helped Waterford through to the second round of the 1980-81 Cup Winners Cup.

Michael Alphonsus Finucane was born in Limerick in 1943 and by the age of 17 had made his League of Ireland debut for his local club against Shamrock Rovers in 1960. He would go on to make a record 634 appearances in the league across 27 seasons and win three FAI Cups. He began his career as an attacking, left footed midfielder but would spend most of his career as a classy, ball-playing defender.

He had the rare honour of captaining Ireland while still a League of Ireland player in a game against Austria in 1971. He also represented the League of Ireland XI on 16 occasions. He came from a family with a strong association with football, including with his uncle John Neilan who had played full back from Limerick in the 1950’s.

Finucane had two spells with both Limerick and Waterford before winding down his league career with another Limerick side, Newcastlewest during their short tenure in the League of Ireland first division. He was 45 when he finally left League of Ireland football, though he didn’t hang up his boots, he continued playing football regularly and also indulged his passion for golf.

But returning to that record breaking game with Bordeaux, as with many European nights for League of Ireland sides it was a story of bravery and determination before eventually succumbing to overwhelming odds. A competitive first leg tie in Kilcohan Park in Waterford saw Bordeaux take a two goal lead thanks to French internationals René Girard and Philippe Vercruysse before veteran defender Noel Synott got Waterford back in the game with a late goal. The away leg in front of a relatively small Bordeaux crowd of around 10,000 finished 4-0 to the French side but that tells only half the story. Waterford, and in particular young goalkeeper David Flavin, put on a fine display and striker Bernard Lacombe missed a number of chances, it was only in the 79th minute that Bordeaux broke the deadlock. A tiring Waterford defence, once breached, could stem the tide no longer. three more goals followed in last ten minutes.

That defeat remains the last time a Waterford side have competed in Europe. Finucane still holds that record more than 30 years later. At more than 43 and up against a top French side packed with internationals Waterford manager Alfie Hale, (a former team-mate of Finucane) kept faith with the veteran star, saying simply, “if he wasn’t playing well, he wouldn’t be in the side”. While Irish players don’t hold too many European records Al Finucane’s achievement as part of a remarkable career is one that League of Ireland fans can take pride in.

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