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The History of Football in Cork

The History of Football in Cork

The history of football in Ireland’s second city is a lengthy, convoluted and at times confusing story. Most League of Ireland fans will have heard of Cork Hibernians, Cork Celtic and Cork City, many will also be vaguely aware of teams called Evergreen, Cork Athletic and Cork United, some may even be aware of Cork Alberts and Cork Bohemians. Lest there be any confusion, The Dundalk FC Matchday Magazine is proud to present a run through of all the many football clubs to have represented Cork in the League of  Ireland!

Cork’s first representative in the league  were Fordsons, the works team from the Ford tractor factory in the city. Fordsons joined the league in 1924 after appearing in the ’24 FAI Cup final as a non-league side, where they lost 1-0 to Athlone Town. Two years later they went one better, defeating Shamrock Rovers 3-2 in the final to take the FAI Cup to Leeside for the first time. During the 20s they performed steadily in the league, regularly finishing in the top four.

In 1930 Fordsons resigned from the league to facilitate the entry of Cork FC. Cork were essentially the same club but without the link to the Ford factory. Cork were joined by Cork Bohemians in 1932. While Cork Bohs resigned due from the league in 1934 due to financial difficulties, Cork FC were having their best season to date. Bohemians (the Dublin variety) pipped them to the league title but they brought senior silverware to Leeside  as they won the FAI Cup beating St James’s Gate in the final.

Cork went on to finish runners-up to Shamrock Rovers in the 1936 FAI Cup final and to Dundalk in the City Cup in 1938, before renaming to Cork City ahead of the following season. Within two years Cork City were no longer. During the 1939-40 season City were involved in a dispute over non-payment of expenses to Shelbourne, and were dismissed from the league. A new club, Cork United were formed and took up City’s league fixtures (and most of their play­ers) mid-season. It was to be the start of a glorious chapter in the history of Cork foot­ball. The first league title in Cork soccer his­tory came in 1941 and was won in dramatic style. Having finished level with Waterford, Cork were scheduled to contest a playoff to decide the title. However Waterford’s players demanded a larger bonus than the club was willing to pay and when the Blues’ players and board failed to reach a compro­mise the league title was awarded to Cork United. United completed the double beat­ing Waterford, naturally, in the cup final. At the end of the season Waterford withdrew from the league and their entire squad was suspended from football for a year. Cork United went from strength to strength. They complete a hat-trick of league titles and were narrowly denied the double in 1942 and ’43 , losing FAI Cup finals to Dundalk and Drumcondra, the 1942 FAI Cup bring­ing Dundalk’s first win in the competition. By 1946 United had made it five league titles out of six. The FAI Cup followed in 1947 with a cup final win over Bohs. As ever in Cork football though, disaster was just around the corner. Within a couple of sea­sons of rewriting the record books United went into liquidation during the 1948-49 season, after completing their City Cup pro­gramme but before the start of the league. In just over eight seasons Cork United had won five league titles, one FAI Cup, two Shields and two City Cups… and had folded.

Cork United were replaced by the newly formed Cork Athletic. The new club signed up several of their predecessors players but struggled to compete after being thrown in at the deep end. Within a season though they had strengthened the squad and in 1950 Cork Athletic edged Drumcondra out to win the league title. They were to be denied the double after a twice replayed cup final against Transport. Athletic retained their title and added the FAI Cup in 1951, defeating Shels in the final.

As the league expanded from ten to twelve teams in 1951 Cork Athletic were joined by another Cork club, Evergreen United.

1953 saw a remarkable Cork derby as Evergreen and Cork Athletic met at Dalymount Park in an all-Cork FAI Cup final. After a 2-2 draw Athletic came away with the bragging rights in the replay, win­ning 2-1. Athletic were back in the FAI Cup final in 1956 and provided Irish football one of its  great anecdotes. With the Cork club leading Shamrock Rovers 2-0 with 15 min­utes to go a member of the Athletic board left Dalymount early to buy champagne. When he returned Rovers had won 3-2. Whether the champagne was donated to the Rovers dressing room remains unknown. Within a season Athletic succumbed to the curse of Cork clubs and resigned from the league, citing financial difficulties.

Their place was taken by Cork Hibernians in 1957, a club which evolved from the strong junior side,  Cork AOH. In 1959 Evergreen changed their name to Cork Celtic and Cork football finally entered a period of stability with Hibs and Celtic seeing out the entirety of the 1960s without a single collapse or name change. Both clubs were relatively stable through the 60s without threatening a major breakthrough. Hibs were beaten cup finalists twice in the early 60s and Celtic reached  the 1964 FAI Cup final where they lost to quadruple-winning Shamrock Rovers, thereby bringing European football to Leeside for the first time. Celtic travelled beyond the Iron Curtain to Bulgaria for the first European game and managed a credit­able 1-1 draw at Slavia Sofia. Slavia eased through the second leg with a 2-0 win at The Mardyke.

Hibs made their European debut in the UEFA Cup in 1970 with a glamour tie against Valencia,  and a 6-1 aggregate defeat. The early 70s were a golden age for Cork football, with league titles for Hibs in 1971 and Celtic in 1974 and FAI Cup wins for Hibs in 1972 and ’73. Hibs’ 1971 league title came courtesy of a playoff win over Shamrock Rovers.

The European Cup brought another European heavyweight to Cork, with Borrussia Moenchengladbach rolling into town and rolling all over Hibs in a comforta­ble 5-0 win. Miah Dennehy gave Hibs a sur­prise lead in the return leg before Borrussia recovered to win 2-1. Hibs were back in Europe the following season after a famous 3-0 FAI Cup final win over double-chasing Waterford. Dennehy became the first player to score a cup final hattrick and paved the way for a move to Nottingham Forest. Hibs’ Cup Winners Cup tie against Cypriot cup winners Pezoporikos had an air of the bizarre about it with the Cypriots switching their home leg to Cork, thus both legs were three days apart played at Flower Lodge. Hibs won both legs to bring German giants Schalke 04 to Cork. They produced one of the great displays in the history of Irish clubs in Europe to hold Schalke scoreless in the first  leg before succumbing 3-0 in the return leg in Gelsenkirchen.

Hibs retained the FAI Cup in ’73, beating Shels 1-0 after  a replay and also won the City Cup, again beating Shels 1-0 in the final. Their return to Europe brought them to Czechoslovakia where they held Banik Ostrava to a 1-0 win. Whatever hopes Hibs had of overturning that deficit evaporated in the second leg with Banik winning 2-1 in what was to be Cork Hibernians’ last match in Europe. Cork Celtic took up the baton from Hibs with a remarkable league title win in 1974. The previous season Celtic had fin­ished a lowly twelfth but arose dramatically to claim a surprise league title with just two defeats in 26 league games.

Celtic’s European Cup campaign was a dramatic and traumatic one. They were initially drawn against Cypriot champions Omonia Nicosia, but Omonia were forced to withdraw, granting Celtic a walkover, when Turkey invaded the island. The second round pitted Celtic against Russian cham­pions Ararat Yerevan from modern day Azerbaijan. Whatever difficulty clubs have travelling to the more Eastern of former  Soviet states pales into insignificance beside the massive undertaking faced by Cork Celtic getting to and from Yerevan in 1974. The financial cost of the trip had a lasting effect on the club and is cited as a contribut­ing factor to Celtic’s demise five years later. Celtic lost the first leg 2-1 at home before suffered the 5-0 thrashing in Azerbaijan that in some ways signalled the beginning of the end for the club.

Hibs quickly stumbled into financial dif­ficulties and went bust in 1976. They were replaced by another junior Cork club, Albert Rovers, who kept League of Ireland fans on their toes by changing their name to Cork Albert and then Cork Alberts the follow­ing year, before rebranding as Cork United in 1979. As Cork Alberts the club con­tested the 1977-78 League Cup final against Dundalk. After sharing a pair of 2-2 draws Dundalk came out on top on penalties. That was as good as it got for Alberts as the club singularly failed to set the league alight and six years after joining the league Cork United went bankrupt and were not re-elected to the league. Meanwhile Cork Celtic had also folded. After winning the title in 1974 Celtic slowly crumbled, slipping steadily down the league table and into bankruptcy. Always Cork’s less popular club, most of the few hundred spectators at Celtic’s last league game in 1979 had made the trip from Dundalk to see Jim McLaughlin’s side clinch the first leg of the double. Following the demise of Cork United in 1982 the city of Cork was left without a League of Ireland club for the first time in 58 years.

A new club, Cork City FC, were formed in 1984 and applied for mem­bership of the League of Ireland. They were immediately granted membership, along with fellow newcomers Longford Town. City avoided relegation to the newly formed First Division of the league in their first season, and have avoided relegation since. A year after City joined the league another club from the greater Cork city area, Cobh Ramblers joined the League of Ireland First Division. Ramblers struggled to make the step up from Munster Senior League foot­ball and spent just three of their 26 seasons in the Premier Division before following the great tradition of Cork soccer last year, drop­ping out of the league.Cork City, meanwhile, improved through­out the 80s and climbed steadily the league table. In 1989 they reached their first FAI Cup final, losing out to treble winners Derry, bringing European football back to Leeside after a break of 15 years. City were league championship runners-up to Dundalk in 1991, and league champions in 1993, after a dramatic three-way playoff with Bohemians and Shelbourne. FAI Cup success followed in 1998 and 2007 and City secured a second league title in 2005, but that relatively modest list of successes belies the massive, positive impact Cork City have had on the league. They have regularly finished in the top three and have provided some great moments in Europe against the likes of Bayern Munich, Standard Liege, Gothenburg, Malmo and Red Star Belgrade. They have regularly attracted some of the biggest crowds in the league and have brought on some of the finest players to play in the league in the past couple of dec­ades. In the past three of four seasons alone they have brought us Kevin Doyle, George O’Callaghan, Denis Behan, Joe Gamble and Liam Kearney among a host of others.

Unfortunately it seems at times that Cork City are hell-bent on following their prede­cessors out of business. Football clubs, hurl­ers, international football captains… there seems to be some self-destructive impulse in the Cork sporting psyche.So, to summarise football in Cork, it’s simple really. Fordsons joined the league, became Cork FC, were reformed as Cork United then Cork Athletic who were replaced by Cork Hibernians who had evolved from Cork AOH and who were eventually replaced by Albert Rovers who became Cork Albert then Cork Alberts then Cork United- not to be confused with the previous Cork United. Meanwhile Cork Bohemians came and went as did Evergreen United, who became Cork Celtic before their demise. In the 80s Cork City- not to be confused with 1930’s Cork City- and Cobh Ramblers joined the league, though Cobh have since tumbled into the A championship while City’s senior status, in the finest tradition of Cork soc­cer hangs in the balance. Dundalk joined the league in 1926. Seventy-three years later we’re still here.

Sean De Loughry
Dundalk FC Magazine