The First Cork City FC

Gerry Desmond recounts the short and troubled history of the original club to bear the name of Cork City FC.

The pre-World War II years were hard ones in Ireland. The 1930s saw the trend of emigration continuing, while rampant poverty and substandard conditions were the lot of countless thousands of those who chose to remain in the young, independent country. Much of this was reflected by the impoverished state of League of Ireland football clubs, many of whom battled almost daily to keep the flag flying. Things got worse as the decade wore on and the distant sound of a warring Europe gradually influenced daily life in insular Ireland. Food, clothes, petrol and other commodities became scarcer and scarcer – eventually being rationed. 

Cork City versus Bohemians match day prgramme from the
Dublin City Cup (21/08/1938). Courtesy of Gerry Desmond.

By the spring of 1938 Cork FC was facing a financial crisis. Crowds were falling alarmingly and income was practically non-existent. On one occasion, only a whip-around by club members ensured a trip to Dublin could be undertaken; things were that tight. People knew the real meaning of shoestring budgets in the ‘30s… 

With little money in the kitty and little hope of gleaning any from a public on its uppers, most professional players at the club drifted away, Derry native Frank Mullen and keeper Billy Harrington being the only ones to remain. Long-time local heroes such as Hugh ‘Sally’ Connolly and Billy Little moved on to where they could ply their trade and earn a living from it. Little, a popular figure on Leeside, would return in a couple of years and indirectly play a major role in a soccer sensation. 

Now reduced to fielding a side of amateurs and reserves, Cork were soon on the slippery slope and playing before paltry attendances at the Mardyke. The till was scraped bare to cover expenses for the first round cup tie at St James’s Gate, but the completely demoralised, patched-up team crashed out 0-3. Staring into a yawning abyss, Cork FC went into voluntary liquidation in early February 1938, disintegrating with their league campaign unfinished. It was a sign of the times; there just wasn’t enough money to go around, no matter how much belts were tightened. 

A new club, also called Cork FC, was hastily formed at an emergency meeting, though early indications were that this name would be quickly changed to Cork Celtic or CorkCity. New colours were adopted – a strange combination of red, yellow and black hooped shirts – and the club stuttered through the remaining fixtures, finishing one from bottom, but content in the knowledge that they had at least saved football in Cork. 

The following season – 1938-39 – the change of title was allowed to happen and Cork City FC proudly took its position in the litany of Leeside football names. The club was anxious to drag itself from the mire and quickly began signing professional players. Connolly returned while others such as Billy Ross from Derry, former international keeper Jim ‘Fox’ Foley and Dubliner Tommy Davis were added to the ranks. Soon the club was making headlines, most notably when thrashing the legendary Shamrock Rovers 7-0 in the Dublin City Cup semi final, a record defeat for the Hoops. Unfortunately, inconsistency dogged City’s first full season. This was perfectly highlighted by their 0-6 reverse against The ‘Gate in the decider a week after routing Rovers. Mixed form continued in the league and, despite investment in the playing staff, the club finished second last once more. The Cup brought another early exit, against Sligo – who had the famous Dixie Dean in their team - at the ‘Dyke. 

Intent on improving their lowly standing and breaking out of an endless rut the club once again imported players at the start of 1939-40 – most notably Jimmy Turnbull. The Englishman was a phenomenal goalscorer. In his previous short stint at the Mardyke – with Cork FC in 1936-37 – he had clocked up 37 league strikes from 22 games, a record which still stands. He also netted a still unmatched 11 in that season’s FAI Cup run which saw Cork beaten in the final by Shamrock Rovers. He had subsequently moved on to Belfast Celtic where he continued to set scoring records. Turnbull’s return south was viewed as a major coup in the Cork City FC boardroom. Others also were drafted in; Owen Madden came home from Birmingham, Mickey Kelly transferred from Wolves, while soon-to-be-great Liam O’Neill was signed locally from Glasheen. 

Despite a strengthened squad, however, the old devil of inconsistency still hung over the team like a dark cloud. Regular disappointing performances kept the turnstiles clicking slowly, but as Christmas approached the club gambled one more time by signing old favourite Billy Little. Nobody could have anticipated the repercussions of this move… 

On St Stephen’s Day 1939 the original Cork City FC won its only trophy when beating Limerick 4-0 in the replayed Munster Senior Cup final, held over from the previous season, at the Mardyke. It was a welcome if brief respite from the surrounding gloom. 

Around the country, meanwhile, the game was unravelling at the seams. Limerick released seven players and their trainer in an effort to stay in business. Waterford took similar action. Every non-Leinster club petitioned the League and the FAI for financial handouts. 

While the team underachieved on the pitch and crowds continued to dwindle, the forthcoming FAI Cup held out hope of a financial lifeline. Unfortunately, the fates did not smile kindly on the strapped Cork club as they were drawn away to Drumcondra in the first round. Although they could claim a 50% share of the net gate from that game, it was still a long month away for a club struggling just to survive to the next match. 

As yet there was no general awareness of the problems about to engulf the Mardyke outfit and certainly the press had little suspicion that anything serious was amiss other than the universal problem of money being tight. The only point of note mentioned in the Cork Examiner besides the Cup draw was further news of player/club friction at Waterford where four first teamers had been suspended for a breach of discipline. 

A week later, however, the paper carried the first inkling that all was not well at Cork City FC when it reported, “The FAI Emergency Committee at its meeting last night considered a complaint regarding W. Little, and decided that they were not satisfied on the statement of that player that his contract with the Shelbourne Club had been cancelled. The Committee fined the Cork Club two guineas for having played Little in defiance of a decision of the Football Association of Ireland, and ordered the Club to pay the expenses of the investigation.” It was a rap on the knuckles, with a minor fine incurred, though any expense was a burden of some significance with a gaggle of clubs, Cork included, struggling to stay afloat each week. 

On 18 January the Examiner highlighted this very fact, carrying news that several clubs were in financial straits. “All the Provincial clubs, with the exception of Bray Unknowns, stressed the need for urgent help at a meeting of the F.L.I. Committee to-night…Limerick and Waterford were granted loans of £20 each to meet immediate calls.” 

Before the month was out, Waterford went beyond recourse to the League, and appealed publicly in the press with an urgent request for support due to their ‘serious financial plight.’ 

On Sunday, 28 January 1940, Cork City FC played what transpired to be the last ever football match in its short and troubled history, though nobody knew it at the time.  That afternoon at the ‘Dyke, Bohemians were beaten 2-1 with Liam O’Neill claiming both home goals. The team played well but a series of scoring chances were squandered. For the record, the last Cork City eleven lined out as follows: Foley, Ross, Cotter, Murphy, Reardon, Doherty, O’Driscoll, O’Neill, McGowan, Madden and Kelly. The next day’s papers carried no more than typical match reports. There were still no signs that a bomb was about to go off. As the countdown to calamity approached, the local papers ironically previewed the upcoming Cup clash with Drumcondra optimistically from Cork’s point of view. 

On the last day of the month, however, news finally broke that Cork City FC was sensationally facing suspension over a share of gate money that had not been paid to Shelbourne ten days previously. The Examiner conveyed the decision “That the Cork City FC be fined ten guineas for violation of Rule 41a. If this fine, together with the money due to Shelbourne FC out of the receipts of the Cork City FC v Shelbourne FC match on January 21, be not paid through the League Secretary on or before Thursday, 5pm, by guaranteed cheque or money order, that the club stand suspended for the remainder of the season, the FAI to be asked to confirm this decision.” 

The FAI unanimously adopted the resolution and City were left to pay up or pack up. In view the harsh economic climate of the era, however, it seemed like an overly severe punishment and there was little chance to do anything about the situation, considering the pressing time limit. 

As the new month dawned on that fateful Thursday, the Cork board of directors issued an unequivocal declaration that it ‘had no intention of paying’ as ordered. In their statement, the board accepted that Shelbourne had not been paid, listing heavy expenses from two previous away trips prior to the game as the main reasons. However, they added that it was their intention to pay the Dublin club from their take of the FAI Cup tie two weeks later. In effect, they had deferred rather than refused payment. This position had been explained to Shelbourne on the day of the game, they claimed, and the League Secretary was also subsequently notified of the situation. Shelbourne, predictably, were neither impressed by their hosts’ financial embarrassment nor prepared to wait and immediately lodged a complaint with the League. As Cork City FC had been unable ‘for business reasons’ to attend the meeting which led to their threatened immediate expulsion, they stated that they considered “this decision despotic…and this fine so unjustly imposed.” 

That Friday, 2 February, when the deadline had passed, all hell broke loose in the sports columns. The headlines screamed out the incredible, unforeseen story: “CorkCity removed from all competitions under FAI control.” “Soccer bombshell of season.” “Emergency Committee’s drastic decision.” “Eve of Cup Sensation.” “‘Miscarriage of Justice’, say Club’s directors.” 

The FAI put its imprimatur on the decision, stating coldly: “It has been decided to remove the Cork City Football Club from all participation in football under the jurisdiction of the Football Association of Ireland. The decision of the Football League in connection with this Club was noted.” They also quoted Rule 41a, the rock on which the short-lived club had finally fallen. “Each club shall pay to the visiting club 20 per cent of the gross gate including stands, but in no case shall the visiting club receive less than £10. Such sum or sums must be paid to the visiting club immediately after match. The visiting club shall be entitled to check the gate.” 

In a preliminary response, the Cork camp countered, “We consider this decision is an absolute miscarriage of justice. We have been tried, convicted and suspended despite two appeals by us that the matter be deferred pending our personal appearance.”  Cork also slammed the Emergency Committee that had sealed their fate. The committee had “four club representatives, and these are Dublin club representatives. This is not an Emergency Committee for Ireland, but an Emergency Committee for Dublin.” 

Cork City V Shamrock Rovers 31 08 1938 
An early Cork City FC match day programme cover from a game
versus Shamrock Rovers from the Dublin City Cup (31/08/1938).
Courtesy of Gerry Desmond.

Cork City FC was genuinely upset at its unsympathetic treatment, not least because they had filled the breach two years earlier when the old Cork FC had gone to the wall in mid-season and the League had faced severe disruption. “We are now put out of football for the sake of the paltry sum of £21 [£10 due to Shelbourne plus £11 fine] which could have been paid in Dublin on Sunday next as per promise,” continued the directors’ statement. “We have been put out of football now on the eve of the Cup when we have a chance of recouping some of our losses of last year and enabling us to balance our books for the year. As result of the action of the Emergency Committee of the FAI, 14 players are now high and dry – players who have given us wholehearted support throughout the season.” 

The next day’s edition of the Examiner confirmed the unexpected nature of the week’s events – “News of the expulsion of the Cork City Football Club by the Emergency Committee of the Football Association of Ireland came as a complete surprise yesterday to southern soccer enthusiasts, who had no hint that any such drastic action was likely.” 

There were, of course, two issues that ultimately led to the expulsion of the original Cork City FC and both, significantly, involved Shelbourne. At this remove over 75 years later it is difficult to say for certain, but it does seem probable, at least, that the second tangle between the clubs came about as a result of the first, which had left the player involved suspended indefinitely. Cork were convinced that Billy Little had been released by the Dubliners, saying he arrived on Leeside ‘with his insurance cards’, and played him in three league games. His apparent last game for Shelbourne had been noted in the Dublin papers and Cork also had a copy of the Shelbourne match programme where Little was praised and thanked for his contribution to the Red shirt and wished well in his future. Cork confidently, if somewhat naively, paid Shelbourne a nominal transfer fee for the player by post-dated cheque, certain that the League would confirm his registration. Shelbourne returned the cheque. 

As the fallout swirled around the southern capital, hints in the press suggested that a contrite approach from Cork City FC might quickly heal the rift. But the club was not about to turn from its stance; “Considering the facts and our expenses with these bodies since we took over football in Cork, we do not see any use in appealing to them in this impasse.” The League and the FAI also both retained their hard line positions, though the ultimate price that was paid – an entire football club – seems a bit over the top for the offence and the outstanding sum in question. 

Immediately, moves initiated by the supporters club, which delegated team trainer Mick O’Brien to contact the FAI, began with a view to quickly forming a new club to carry the Cork banner after the embarrassing loss of two clubs in as many years. A public meeting was held in the City Hall on Tuesday 6 February 1940 at which the Cork Association Football Club was formed. The new club colours would be green shirts with white collars and the team would use the Cork Coat of Arms as its crest. Before it played its first competitive game, however, Cork AFC underwent a name change to Cork United FC. The FAI accepted the new club on payment of a £50 registration fee, a large figure for the time. From this fee Shelbourne and Bohemians were each paid £10 as their share of unpaid gate receipts from their recent visits to Cork. Although they had lost a club from the second city, the football authorities were still determined to get their pound of flesh, it seems – regardless of who paid the bill. 

For a week or so after the expulsion of Cork City FC there was a flurry of claims and accusations made by the club and the League/FAI. City maintained that many clubs had broken similar and more important rules and had not been turfed out. But soon the name of the original Cork City FC faded from the headlines and passed to the pages of history. The club has all but been completely forgotten… 

From the low ebb of the enforced collapse of Cork City FC in the harsh winter of 1940, their successors rose from the ashes to become the most successful club ever from Leeside, before or since. In their first full season they won the double, claimed five league titles in six campaigns and added another FAI Cup victory in 1947 to that impressive haul. From Cork City’s vain struggle to survive to the Golden Era of Cork United, the old Mardyke had never seen anything like it…

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