Athletic, Hibs and Celtic

‌By Plunkett Carter

After Cork United’s departure, emergency meetings were held in an effort to find a solution to the Cork soccer crisis and, on 6 November, the Cork Examiner reported: “Last night saw the birth of a new club to be known as Cork Athletic and, subject to approval, will play in this season’s league competition”.  Nine weeks had elapsed since there was a Cork involvement in LoI competitions so it was with delight that, on 12 December, a large contingent of Leeside supporters headed for Milltown on special trains to support the newcomers. The team defeated by Shamrock Rovers was composed entirely of former Cork United players including Florrie Burke, Owen Madden, and Jackie O’Reilly who were also, strangely, directors of the new club.‌

 Cork Athletic 1951
The Cork Athletic team which opened the season in August 1951 by defeating debutants Evergreen Utd in the Dublin City Cup. (Source: Plunkett Carter)

Evergreen United, a new team and the longest surviving in Cork history, were that year admitted to the league and played their home games at Turner’s Cross.  Cork Athletic’s dismal league form continued into 1953 and, in an effort to boost dwindling attendances, they made an audacious but successful bid for English International Raich Carter whom they managed to sign on at £50 a match basis at a time when the maximum wage cross-Channel was £14. Carter’s colossal wages were, it is believed, paid by Mr Elyan, a member of the Jewish Community who had a cabinet making business in Adelaide Street. Carter’s appearances paid rich dividends as attendances trebled wherever he played. And more importantly his brilliance ensured Cork Athletic’s fourth consecutive FAI Cup final appearance when they were a little fortunate to overcome higher-ranked neighbours Evergreen after a replay on a miserable wet night at Dalymount. 

Everything in the garden was rosy in 1954; some fabulous local derbies attracted huge attendances as both teams were in contention for league honours. Evergreen eventually finished runners-up to Shams with Athletic only two points further in arrears. What a difference a year makes: Evergreen had a dreadful season in 1955, finishing second-last, which left them having to apply for re-election. Their loyal fans kept faith and in 1956 fine attendances created a good atmosphere at the ’Cross as they finished in the top four, a position that was repeated almost annually.  After their cup final victory in 1953, Athletic went into decline. In 1956 urgent surgery became necessary when early in the campaign they became also-rans in the title race, forcing them into another life-saving master-stroke — the signing of former Manchester United and Glasgow Celtic great Jimmy Delaney, who came south in a quest for a fourth FA Cup medal having already won English, Scottish, and Northern Ireland equivalents. It was a masterstroke which filled their almost empty treasure chest.  However, it was a case of  ‘so near and yet so far’ for Cork and Delaney as, with just 12 minutes remaining in the final at Dalymount, they led Shams 2-0 but amazingly the red-hot Hoops fought back to win 3-2. Another disastrous season followed Delaney’s departure and this time they were unable to secure a top-class signing to attract the fans back to the Mardyke. Adversity has a way of showing itself at the most inopportune times; this is when you can tell who your real friends are. 

In April 1957 with the last act of a dying swan they continued their remarkable sequence of shock victories over champion club Shamrock Rovers. Three months later, following an emergency meeting (held in camera) of the Football League of Ireland, Cork Athletic were dismissed as a result of their very poor financial position. 

Seven teams applied to take the place of Cork Athletic, namely, Cork Hibernians, Glasheen, Cork Celtic, Wembley, Bray Wanderers, Workman’s Club, and Chapelizod. Cork Hibs had much more to offer than the other candidates and were unanimously elected.  Hibernians owed its foundation to an association between the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) and Flower Lodge Stadium. The constitution of AOH precluded the formation of a professional team but in the best interest of the full expansion of Flower Lodge Stadium a syndicate with a capital of £2,000 was formed and, under the name Cork Hibernians, it was admitted to the league. 

The story began in 1947 when members of the AOH Football Club formed themselves into a Grounds Committee to acquire a ground for the club. They took the first step by purchasing 11.5 acres at Flower Lodge for £5,800. The fundraising began with sixpenny football-lottery cards and progressed to the very popular Hall Ground Fund Football Pools in which £350 could be won for an outlay of one shilling. The ambitious committee also brought top bands, such as Joe Loss, Clipper Carlton, and Victor Sylvester to fundraising dances at the City Hall. An English grounds expert was brought over and a Cork firm undertook the work of laying the pitch, and an elaborate drainage system was installed. In 1957 the first competitive game was staged when Sligo played AOH in the FAI Senior Cup. The ground was not then enclosed. Flower Lodge Stadium was under the control of the Grounds Committee but many of the members of the Hibs directorate were also members of that committee. Secretary of Hibs John Crowley acted in the same capacity for the Grounds Committee with Hibs paying 10% of all gate receipts to them. They played their home games at the Mardyke until August 1962 when they transferred to the Lodge. ‌

 Cork Hibernians 1958
 The Cork Hibernians team of 1958.

Cork Hibs progress was moderate and, after a poor start which saw them propping up the league in their debut season, they finished third from the bottom and eight years went by before they gained a top-four finish in 1965. They did, however, have the consolation of contesting two FAI Cup finals (1960 and ’63), losing both to classy Shelbourne. Despite this mediocrity they still attracted decent attendances, particularly for local derbies, FAI Cup matches and clashes with Shamrock Rovers. Hibs qualified for the UEFA Cup (1970) by virtue of their Shield victory in 1969. Former Arsenal star Dave Bacuzzi was appointed player–manager in 1970. Hibs were then on the crest of a wave and had enormous support with attendances constantly exceeding the five-digit mark culminating in an incredible 26,000 for a league decider with Waterford in 1972. ‌

 Cork Hibernians 1972
 Jubilation as Cork Hibs player manager Dave Bacuzzi holds the FAI Cup aloft at dalymount Park in 1972.

After a third-place finish in 1974 behind champions Cork Celtic, John Crowley, speaking on behalf of the board, said,

In four years under the current manager we have failed to unearth a great deal of local talent. To lose to a team of local players like St Pat’s in the FAI Cup poses the question: Where have we gone wrong? When you pay out big money in wages, as we have done, you expect to dominate. We need £1,400 from every home-game to pay our way, and unless we are successful we will not get that. We have to think of a part-time professional staff unless changes are made

The report of the Commission on Association Football in May 1973 estimated the average gate receipts to be just £200. Two years earlier, a league local derby at Turner’s Cross yielded receipts of £2,500 at a time when the CIE Busmen were on strike and despite the fact that it clashed with the women’s retreat in city churches, a significant event in those days. Hibs reported that their average takings for all home matches — Shield, League, FAI and City Cup — were £1,000. 

When the euphoria or the novelty of supporting a winning team died down after a decade of abjection, attendances dwindled. The fact that only 12,000 turned up for the 1973 FAI Cup final replay, the first ever to be played in Cork, was an indication, if one was needed, that fans and directors spoiled by constant success had become more choosy. The years when the call of the kick-off would bring 10,000 hustling up to Flower Lodge on a Sunday were gone, probably for ever. The car, TV (Match of the Day), the wife or girlfriend, golf, and other participation sports had changed the week-end habits of many fans. Despite their many successes, Hibs lost £6,000 that year and several directors sold their shares. Of course the loss did not take account of the £20,000 received from NottsForest for Miah Dennehy. 

In September 1973, a Hibs director at the European Cup Winners Cup match with Banik Ostrava, looking down from the Flower Lodge pavilion at a paltry attendance that returned receipts of £2,000, remarked, ‘We are in for a long hard season’. That was a bad outlook but attendances in Cork were still the highest in the league. However, there were some highs as well, with 18,000 spectators paying £5,400 to watch the league derby at the Lodge just three months later in December 1973. 

Cork Hibs grabbed the headlines for all the wrong reasons when they sacked outstanding manager Dave Bacuzzi, unexpectedly terminating his contract at the end of the season. Football matches were completely overshadowed by the fans’ expression of support for Bacuzzi. The popularity and high esteem in which he was held was evidenced in the support demonstrated at a protest march and at meetings held inside and outside the ground in conjunction with their last league game. The players paid their own tribute with a bright and entertaining performance that was too good, too effective, and too polished for Shams. Hundreds of Hibs supporters remained on after the final whistle and shouldered the manager around the pitch. 

Bacuzzi’s record with Hibs was magnificent:  two FAI Cups, a League Championship, Blaxnit All Ireland, two Dublin City Cups, Shield, and three Munster Cups. Yet, the directors were not pleased and Dave was sensationally sacked at the end of the 1973/74 season. Dave Bacuzzi carved himself a special niche in the hearts of all Hibs fans and will be remembered as the ‘Flower of the Lodge’.  Ironically, his amazing string of successes contributed to his departure. 

At the Cork Hibs AGM held at the end of the season, long-serving secretary John Crowley, easily the most powerful and influential member of the Board, was voted out of office. Cash-strapped Hibs succeeded in getting a change in the rule regarding the division of gate receipts for the upcoming season. Under the old rule visiting clubs received 30% of the gross gate with a minimum guarantee of £100. For the 1974/75 season, visiting clubs would receive a guarantee of £150 and the home club were to take the entire gate. The motion proposed by Hibs generated great debate and barely received the required two-thirds majority. The change came a few years too late for Hibs to reap its benefit, as the apathy afflicting Dublin soccer was spreading to the southern capital. 

To generate temporary cash flow, Hibs signed Rodney Marsh, a former cross-Channel great at enormous expense, but this proved a short-term ill-advised solution. Things actually got worse and the end, when it came, shocked football people not alone in Cork but nationwide.   

During the close season, Hibs supporters were flabbergasted when the Cork Examiner revealed that the club’s secretary, Shaun O’Sullivan, had announced plans to hold a public meeting in the Stardust, Grand Parade, in an effort to raise £8,000, which was an immediate short-term requirement before a ball could be kicked.  300 supporters — including Hibs directors, players, Development Committee and officers of AOH Grounds Committees — answered the SOS and attended. A six-man committee was elected to coordinate the fundraising drive, consisting of Alderman Sean O’Leary (chairman), John Crowley, Dave Canty, Sean Collins, Pat Foley, and Bertie Lane. In a very short time they managed to raise £1,000 but it was all to no avail as, just days later at the reconvened AGM, Cork Hibs were wound up. 

The trinity of sporting organizations associated with the AOH were Flower Lodge Grounds Committee, Cork Hibs FC, and Flower Lodge Social Club (administered by Cork Hibs Development Committee and the Hall Ground Committee). It was surprising, particularly to the ordinary supporter, that funds could not have been diverted or loaned by the viable organizations to prevent Hibs going out of football.

Cork Celtic, at the time, were about to enter a critical period in their history.  Celtic, who that season celebrated their silver jubilee as a League of Ireland team, were admitted in 1951 as Evergreen United, when the league was extended from ten to twelve teams. Evergreen upgraded after a brilliant post-war spell in non-league football, having contested the FAI Intermediate Cup final and having won the FAI Youths Cup.  Goal King ‘Big’ Seanie McCarthy captained the side which finished five places ahead of local rivals Cork Athletic.  In every season from 1953 to 1964 Evergreen finished ahead of their local rivals. Average attendances in the league were very high throughout the fifties and sixties, and Evergreen were pleased with their hard-core supporters, mainly from the southern suburbs, who populated the terraces at Turner’s Cross. They were runners-up to Shams in the league in ’54 and ’59 and defeated by Shels in a play-off in 1962. During that period they almost monopolised the Top Four Competition (a great end of season receipt generator). 

Evergreen / Cork Celtic (name change 1959) were a well-balanced team. Their striking partnership of Donie Leahy and Austin Noonan worked like pepper and salt, while the half-line of Ray Cowhie, John Coughlan, and Frank McCarthy left their mark in more ways than one. Celtic were beaten in two FAI Cup finals, ’64 and ’69, by Shams, in each case after extra time. ‘If you don’t speculate you can’t accumulate’ was the policy that paid off for Celtic in 1974 when, encouraged by directors Pierce Moore and John Horgan, manager Paul O’Donovan invested in big signings: Bobby Tambling (Chelsea’s then all-time leading scorer), Alfie Hale, Ben Hannigan, and Paddy Shortt were all signed and helped Celtic to win its first and only League Championship. Unfortunately, Celtic were unable to maintain that high ranking and fell from grace rapidly; a subsequent huge drop in attendances brought with it inevitable cash-flow difficulties. 

Cork Celtic came up with a short-term solution to its financial crisis by signing George Best, arguably one of the greatest players of all time, on a match to match contract. 

Best made his debut for Celtic on Sunday 28 Dec 1975 in the League of Ireland against Drogheda. In anticipation of a huge crowd, Celtic switched the match from Turner’s Cross to Flower Lodge. George had been playing on loan with StockportCounty and ended his contract after lining out with them on St Stephen’s Day. Best had been on a match fee of £300 with Stockport, and this made him one of the biggest earners in English soccer. Celtic signed him on a match-to-match basis and is reported to have been paid £1,000 to play against Drogheda. Best was earning three times more in Cork than Pat Jennings was at Spurs. 

Admission prices for the game were: stand £1.50, and terrace 70p, 50p, children 30p. An indication of Best’s extraordinary wage can be gauged from the following:  the average industrial wage for a man was £53 a week and £27 for a woman. Women couldn't take up apprenticeships and had restricted access to jury duty. One in four working women was a clerk/typist. Cost of living in 1975: four-bedroomed bungalows were available at £14,000; a new car could be bought for £1,500; automatic washing machines £95; electric cooker £85; Tony Kenny starred in Cinderella with admission prices at 60p, 80p, £1 and £1.50; leather shoes retailed at £6, and dancing to a top band on New Year’s Eve would set you back just 75p; and 20 filter-tip cigarettes cost a mere 21p. 

The Examiner headline: ‘Best draws the fans but does little else as Celtic slump’ told the whole story. Best made little impact on the proceedings as Drogheda comfortably won a disappointing game before 12,000 spectators who paid an estimated £6,000.  The defeat was damaging to Celtic’s league prospects.  Celtic’s average home-attendance before George Best’s arrival was £600. Best was disappointed with his own performance, saying “It’s always hard playing your first game with a new team. It takes a while to get to know one another. I would like to come back and show that it can be different.” 

George was not asked to travel for the away fixture with Finn Harps but was asked to fly over again for the home game with Bohs. This time the match went ahead at Celtic’s regular venue in Turner’s Cross and admission prices were increased by 20p, from 50p to 70p. The spectators showed they were undeterred by the disappointment of Best's initial appearance two weeks earlier, and Celtic showed that they had learned a lot from that experience. They played with confidence and zest which encouraged Best to take a much more active role and his performance was enough to excite interest in his future appearances. Nine thousand spectators paid an estimated £4,000 to witness Celtic deservedly defeat Bohs 1-0. Cork Celtic decided to select Best for the away match against Shels at Harold’s Cross after the Dublin team agreed to compensate them for Georgie's match fee. A 20,000 crowd was anticipated but it fell short of that, even if Shels were satisfied with the 7,000 spectators who paid record receipts of £3,200 to see the Belfast wizard. The average attendance at Harold’s Cross had been, until then, less than 1,000. The super star hardly raised a sweat and Shels went on to register a convincing 2-1 victory. It was back to Turner’s Cross again the following week where Celtic had an attractive home fixture versus Waterford. George rang very late on the Saturday night before the match to say he had the flu. 

Celtic’s profit from Best’s two appearances in Cork was £8,000 which was greater than the accumulative returns from the other eleven home-league ties. So, not surprisingly after Best’s departure, Celtic gambled again when they signed World Cup hero Geoff Hurst. The English star was a huge improvement on Best but, unfortunately, in the aftermath of Best's poor performances the gate receipts were only £1,000 when Hurst made an excellent scoring debut in their 3-1 victory over Shams. Hurst was also contracted to play in the North American Soccer League (NASL) and left for America following Celtic’s defeat in the FAI Cup second round by eventual cup-winners Bohs. During his four weeks with Celtic, Hurst showed good professionalism and gave 100% commitment in the Celtic jersey. He was also friendly and humorous and endeared himself to players, officials, and fans. 

After Cork Hibs’ demise, the League Management were monitoring the situation in Cork, which, to say the least, was very unsettled. Management of the Turner’s Cross-based club was constantly changing and, after a very poor season in 1976/77, Celtic were summoned to Dublin. Things worsened the following year and, after manager Paul O’Donovan was sacked, director Sean Feehan assumed control in a temporary capacity. The highlight of a dismal year was the appearance in Turner’s Cross of world-renowned German legend Uwe Seeler — an acquaintance of Adidas Cork Manager Michael O’Connell — whose once-off appearance attracted a fine attendance during which he obliged by scoring two goals.  It was almost as if they were playing musical chairs in Turner’s Cross as Amby Fogarty returned to the hot-seat for a second stint replacing Paul O’Donovan who also had been through revolving doors.

Prior to the start of the 1978/79 season, league sponsors Bass announced that they were doubling their sponsorship and prize money. As far as Cork teams were concerned it was obvious, from a very early stage, that they wouldn’t be sharing in the windfall. Amby Fogarty, in terms of the transfer market, was a great wheeler-dealer and it was he who had established the contacts with English clubs, which had seen Dave Wigginton, Alex Ludzik, Carl Davenport, and Barry Notley arrive in Cork. This time he was in trouble before the season even began and had to call a public meeting in order to field a team. He needed a ground (Turner’s Cross was closed), players, and money. Unfortunately, after a poor start gate receipts started falling like autumn leaves. Amby still had an ace up his sleeve: he had persuaded Coventry’s Irish Youth International Tommy ‘Tucker’ O’Brien, who had three years earlier returned home after a serious leg injury, to make a comeback. O’Brien, a runaway winner of the Bass League Player of the Month award after his first month’s action, again became the subject of many cross-Channel enquiries. Fogarty, without O’Brien’s knowledge, had agreed a transfer fee with Coventry for the youngster’s return. The £20,000 bonanza, a huge transfer fee at the time, would guarantee Celtic’s future. Coventry manager Gordon Milne travelled to Tolka Park, where Celtic were playing against Shels, to complete the formalities but rather mysteriously O’Brien didn’t appear and, subsequently, never played with Celtic again. Thereafter a cloud hung over Celtic. Their financial position worsened but they still managed to convince the Association that planned improvements for Turner’s Cross would help enormously.

Regrettaby, Celtic who had battled bravely against adversity for four years had fought its last battle. On 20 July 1979 they were expelled, having failed to provide documentary evidence stating that certain conditions, desired by the AGM, were fulfilled. Celtic argued that Pierce Moore had obtained the shares previously held by Sean Feehan and Tim Madden, and would fulfil the conditions laid down, but the league management conveniently turned a deaf ear.

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