The Rise of Cork United

By Plunkett Carter

A League of Ireland without Cork representation was then unthinkable and the Association was delighted to admit Cork United as a replacement. They proved to be one of the greatest teams of all time but sensationally disbanded in 1948.‌

 Cork United 1940
Cork Utd founded in 1940 won the FAI Cup and League double in their first full season 1940-41. (Source: Plunkett Carter)

Cork United, who were founded at a public meeting in the City Hall on 6 February 1940 with the help of a whip-round from fans, were allowed by the League to complete the remaining fixtures of the expelled Cork City. From ten games they accumulated 12 points to give them a fifth-place finish.  They made a poor start to their first full season, failing to win in seven consecutive shield matches before the league commenced. After losing valuable ground in the opening series of league matches they hit a rich vein of form around Christmas, winning ten in a row before suffering a home defeat against title challengers Waterford. Almost 8,400 spectators paid £417 to watch that game, an average of less than one shilling per fan. By then, coach Billy Little had dispensed with his experimentation, and his first eleven contained four Northern Inter-League stars and seven home-based lads including internationals Fox Foley, Owenie Madden, and Jackie O’Reilly who had pre-war cross-Channel experience. Liam O’Neill, John McGowan, Sean McCarthy, and Gerry O’Riordan were all soon to be household names, as Cork United went on to create history by bringing off the Cup and League double. They defeated Waterford 2-1 after a thrilling fiery replay in the FAI Cup final at Dalymount. 

The teams were due to meet again some weeks later in a test match that was necessary to decide the outright championship winners after both sides finished level on points after 22 series of matches. Sensationally that play-off never took place as seven Waterford players, who were offered bonuses of £5 (win) and £2.50 (draw), demanded the draw bonus be paid even if they lost. Waterford’s directors rejected the demand and suspended all seven, including three Cork-born stars, Timothy Jim O’Keeffe, Tawser Myers, and Tol Ol Daly. Not surprisingly, Cork’s directors, fearing the loss of an estimated £1,000 gate, intervened and offered to pay the bonuses, but Waterford, on a point of principle, refused the offer and subsequently withdrew from football.  Such was the fine balance between profit and loss that the lost revenue resulted in Cork United treasurer Dr M Goold announcing a deficit instead of a profit on the season’s activities. Cork United were a fully professional outfit who paid the top rate and who overnighted in hotels before most away matches. Prior to the FAI Cup semi-final and final, they spent a week at a training camp in Bray. 

Cork United did not rest on their laurels and signed Richie Noonan from St James’s Gate, Florrie Burke (Blackrock), and Billy Hayes (Huddersfield) in an effort to retain their titles. Ballincollig-born Hayes was, arguably, the best full-back ever to play in the league. He was still in his prime when he signed in October 1941 from top first-division side Huddersfield, with whom he made 200 appearances. It was a transfer which underlined the strength of League of Ireland soccer in the war years; comparable examples would be Dave Langan or Gary Kelly transferring from Leeds or from Derby while in their prime.  Local stars wanting to play regular first-team football were forced to ply their trade elsewhere. Among the illustrious group, which at various times left Cork to secure first-team football, were Billy Harrington (Ireland), Eugene Noonan, and Richie Noonan (represented League of Ireland), Willie Cotter (represented LoI), Peter Desmond (Ireland), Christy ‘Sheriff’ Curtin, Johnny Byrne (League of Ireland and Irish League), Paddy O’Leary (represented LoI), Seamus Madden, Billy Venner, Gerry Riordan, Timothy Jim O’Keeffe (Ireland), Jackie Driscoll (dual international Ireland & N Ireland), Tol Ol Daly, Tawser Myers, and Paddy Cronin (represented LOI & Irish League).  

Cork United retained their League Championship and contested another FAI Cup final in which they were defeated by Dundalk. The league was always a priority and a feature of their success was a magnificent 20-match unbeaten run which was ended at the Mardyke by Shams who came within two points of forcing United into yet another play-off. In the 18 matches played, United scored 54 goals with Sean McCarthy —christened ‘The King’ — tallying 19 of that total. Big Seanie, the country’s leading scorer, retained the ‘Golden Boot’ for a further two years. 

Before a ball was kicked in the 1942/43 season, Cork United director Mr Kenworthy — obviously concerned, despite completing another magnificent season, that they had lost out financially — reminded fans of some of the difficulties encountered in their efforts to provide Cork with a successful club: the injury list and resultant medical expenses; the slender finances to tide over lean periods; the provision of transport to away games; and costs of hotel accommodation.  He didn’t mention the cost of lodging homes for their Northern and English signings nor the everyday expenses incurred in keeping a top team in business. However, in Cork United’s first match programme of the season, he compiled a chart showing the travelling to be done in the league and shield and its estimated cost which would, he hoped, help people to understand the difficulties confronting the promoters of first-class football in Cork. Hitting out at those clinging to the idea that soccer should show a huge profit in Cork, he revealed that United would travel 4,350 miles and running up bills of £327 in the process.  This estimated expenditure for travelling represented a quarter of the total expenditure of all ten teams in the league. 

Arrivals and departures were always a feature of every new season on Leeside; great servants Jimmy Hooks, Bobby McFarlane, Mick McKenna, Liam O’Neill, and Gerry O’Riordan all moved on and were replaced by Timothy Jim O’Keeffe, Jackie O’Driscoll, Christy Curtin, and Connie Forde. The title race went right down to the wire and Cork created history by becoming the first team to win three titles in a row. They also made it to their third Cup final, in which 31,000 colourful fans cheered themselves hoarse as Drumcondra beat United 2-1. Again after such a successful season you would imagine that Cork United would have made a nice overall profit. Unfortunately, that was not the case and, after perusing the treasurer’s notebook and newspaper match reports, I can confirm that once more Cork United lost money on the season. The FAI Cup final yielded gate receipts of £1,945 and Cork’s share was £415. The FAI introduced a two-leg system for the first round of the competition and Cork and Shelbourne shared £355. In the semi-final, United needed a replay to overcome Brideville, and the aggregate gate receipts of £1,388 were a huge help to both teams, with Brideville’s share helping them pay off their debts. In the replay, Cork won 2-0 with goals from Jackie O’Reilly and Noel Dunne; the second from Dunne crept in at the far post after Seanie McCarthy deceived the keeper by allowing his shot go between his legs.  

In the League competition, the home team kept 75% of the gate, the away-side received 20%, and the FLI 5%.  An attendance of 4,000 would usually represent gate receipts of £200.  The following were their share of home-league receipts when playing against the following teams:  Brideville (£54), Bray (£42), Dundalk (£101), Shels (£130), Limerick (£157), St James’s Gate (£95), Bohs (£150), Shams (£181), and Drums (£372). Their 20% share of nine league away matches totalled just £380. Shield gates were shared evenly between the teams and Cork United’s reward for five away journeys came to a meagre £120. So you can see it was almost impossible for professional football teams, paying the highest rates to their players, to make money out of League of Ireland competitions. Expenses incurred by Cork United for home games were: UCC rent 10% of gross gate, stiles operators £2.50, advertising £2, match officials 5 shillings, stewards 15 shillings, refreshments 13 shillings, and groundsman £1. Cork United’s squad was the strongest in the country and, in 1943, players’ salaries were £5/£7 when playing and £3/£4when not involved. On top of that, bonuses of £3 for a win and £1.50 for a draw were paid.  Now, who would want to be a football director? 

Cork United’s surprising fall from grace in 1943/44 was hard to predict and difficult to understand. In contrast to earlier campaigns, they were quick out of the blocks and won the Dublin City Cup by defeating Drums in the final at the Mardyke. Early season warm-up competitions were never high on Cork clubs’ priorities and the victory proved to be a bad omen as, for the first time ever, they failed to reach the FAI Cup final and relinquished their league title. Cork fans, indeed supporters from all over Ireland, mourned the death at a young age of their international winger Timothy Jim O’Keeffe. 

Normal services resumed in 1944/45 and, after a typical poor start, when a host of newcomers were introduced, they got off to a flyer in the league, hammering holders Shels 5-2 in the opening game. Among those to wear the colours for the first time were ‘Small’ Seanie McCarthy, Willie Cotter, Paddy Noonan, and Davy Noonan, while international keeper Billy Harrington returned to the fold. Rugby star Tommy Moroney was another who became a regular on a great side.  They followed up the Shels win with a 9-0 slaughter of Brideville in Dublin. United became the great entertainers and sent shock waves through the League of Ireland when hitting unbeaten Shams for six at the Mardyke. After that there was no doubting that the League Championship was coming back home and the title was wrapped up with a few games to spare. And how about the following statistics? Cork United averaged 4.2 goals per game, hitting 59 from 14 matches, while Big Seanie Mac scored 29 times, an average of over two goals a game. 

Big Seanie who had achieved everything in League of Ireland football decided to try his luck in Northern Ireland where the wages were £3 higher. He signed for Belfast Celtic and continued his remarkable scoring exploits. Paddy O’Leary who signed from Limerick proved to be an ideal replacement and, when Cork defeated Drums 9-1 at the Mardyke, he scored six times. O’Leary was top scorer, with 15 goals, as Cork United won the Championship for the fifth time in six years. Drums, despite their 9-goal humiliation at the Mardyke, were the main challengers and when they met Cork in the revenge away-leg in the capital they switched the game from Tolka to Dalymount. They were rewarded for their enterprise, as a record 31,000 paid to see the sides share the points in a thriller. Gate receipts of over £2,000 were returned and Cork United, rarely the benefactors, returned home with their biggest cheque ever of £500 from an away league fixture. 

All international football was suspended during the war, between 1939 and ’46, so, unfortunately, the five-times championship-winning Cork United players were deprived of the honour of representing their country. If war hadn’t intervened it is almost certain that Cork fans wouldn’t have seen many of the talented home-grown stars on native soil, as they surely would have been parading their exquisite skills across the water. 

When the war ended, Billy Hayes returned to resume his career with Huddersfield and it was a measure of his skill, and the standard of the League of Ireland, that he regained his full-back position with the first-division team. He became Huddersfield’s longest-serving player in a career that straddled the war. Cork United wasted little time in finding a replacement and signed George Black from Distillery. Black had been a target for some years and caught the eye when impressing on the Distillery team which played Cork United in the Inter City Cup a few years earlier. Such was Black’s influence that Hayes was hardly missed, but unfortunately he received a career-threatening injury in February when Cork’s league match against Drums was switched at the last minute from a waterlogged Mardyke to Turner’s Cross. Ironically, it was the only game Cork United ever played at the venue. Veteran Fox Foley returned as a replacement for the injured Ned Courtney and Big Seanie Mac came back from Belfast Celtic to form a partnership with Paddy O’Leary. Con Houlihan of the Evening Press commented that their partnership was as smooth as that of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 1947 was very significant for Cork soccer as they won the FAI Cup, defeating Bohs 2-0, with an all-Cork-born side. 

At the start of the following 1947/48 season, Cork’s chance of regaining the league title, surrendered to Shels a year earlier, received a hammer blow with the transfers of  star players Jackie O’Driscoll to Swansea and Tommy Moroney and Johnny McGowan to West Ham. Cork received a confidence booster when they defeated Shels in the Shield final at the Mardyke when flying goal-scoring winger Tony Drummond and Frank O’Farrell impressed. However, they never recovered from a poor start in the league when it became obvious that Moroney, McGowan, and O’Driscoll were sorely missed. Cork fans, unaccustomed to watching a team languishing in mid-table, absented themselves in sizeable numbers. They had further reason to stay away when the promising Frank O’Farrell was transferred to West Ham. Cork’s ambition (or lack of ambition) could not have been more clearly emphasised when O’Farrell was transferred, precipitating the resignation of chairman Billy Williams, who left as a result of increasing financial difficulties and internal dissention. All Cork’s eggs were this time in the one basket and the retention of the FAI Cup was the only target. They got a great opportunity of doing so when given a home semi-final against Drums. Cork failed to complete the job in Cork and went under 2-0 in the replay. 

The break-up of the side continued in 1948/49 when stalwarts Sean McCarthy and Paddy Noonan departed to England. This was bad news for new coach J J Commins who had previously held positions with seven English clubs. The manner of some early-season defeats brought with them fears expressed by the Examiner reporter who said “there were ominous early-warning signs which would have to be tackled instantly if United were to have aspirations of any description.” Such poor performances in early season were normally ignored by the fans. The supreme optimists were even shouting “I told you so” after a surprise victory over Shams at the Mardyke. United’s supporters were in great form, unaware that they had watched the great Cork United play their last game at the venue. Ten weeks were to pass before they would see another game at the Mardyke, as on the following Saturday, 9 October, the directors dropped a bombshell when they announced that Cork United were to be disbanded after the following day’s match against Limerick at the Market’s Field. 

The unpalatable news was confirmed on the Cork Examiner (22 October 1948): 

Cork United FC (1940) Ltd was formerly dissolved last night at an extraordinary meeting of the company. It was learned subsequently, however, that certain proposals were made at the meeting which would provide for the continuation of league soccer in Cork and that shareholders present approved the move. Shareholders were told that the club’s liabilities were £1,305 and assets £1,328. Every season since the company was formed in 1940 showed a slight loss, it was stated. During the present season there was a loss of £120 per week. On the visit to Sligo alone they lost £163, a loss of £98 on the visit to Limerick, while the recent shield match at the Mardyke against proverbial crowd pullers Shamrock Rovers left the club with a deficit of £52. 

Only 100 people purchased season tickets for £14, which brought an angry response from Mr F. Mullins who said it was disgraceful that so few in a city with a population of 100,000 would support such a great club. Dr Gould proposed and Mr H E Kenworthy seconded the resolution which was passed unanimously: “that the company do forthwith dissolve and be wound up”. A liquidator was appointed and this concluded the formal business of the meeting.   

 

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