Cork Hibernians – A brief history of a magical team

There were gasps in the room when auctioneer Ian Whyte brought down his gavel on Lot 382. At €5,100 the three medals won by Cork Hibernians centre-forward Tony Marsden had not only blown away the estimate, they had smashed previous records for Irish football medals.  

via http://www.corkpastandpresent.ie

Sixty years after the club joined the League of Ireland and 41 years after they disappeared into oblivion, the record bid was a clear indication that Hibs are long gone but certainly not forgotten.

The identity of the winning telephone bidder remains a mystery, but he surely stood on the grassy banks of Flower Lodge in the 1970’s supporting one of the most remarkable teams in Irish football history.

Cork has had more clubs than Jack Nicklaus ever carried in his bag and  the ‘second city’ has seen incredible football success.

Cork United won five titles in six seasons in the 1940’s; Cork Athletic won back-to-back titles in the early 50s, including the double in 1951. Hibs, by contrast, won only one league title and two FAI Cups.

They were by no means the most successful club in Cork, but for a magical period in the early 1970’s they captured the country’s imagination. They achieved something rare in Irish football – they were huge, they were box office.

They came from humble beginnings, formed in 1947 as Ancient order of Hibernians, winning the FAI Intermediate Cup in 1952. In 1957 they became semi professional and joined the League of Ireland as Cork Hibernians. They finished bottom in their first season and rarely threatened the top of the table in their first decade.

Two FAI Cup final defeats by Shelbourne in 1960 and 1963, along with a couple of 3rd place finishes in 1969 and 1970 were the main claim to fame before Dave Bacuzzi arrived as manager in the summer of 1970.

Bacuzzi changed Hibs on and off the field almost overnight. Hibs were flamboyant, they were sexy.  Flower Lodge was the place to play and the place to be seen.  Players such as Miah Dennehy, Dave ‘Wiggy’ Wiggington, John Lawson, Donie Wallace and Walter ‘Sonny; Sweeney became household names.

Then there was Carl Davenport, affectionately known as ‘The Dav’. Davenport was not only a talented footballer, but also Irish football’s first heartthrob, attracting his fare share of female fans to the game.

The pretty boy became a target for some over zealous defending and, on one occasion, with the Dav rolling around on the ground after a robust ‘leveller’ challenge, one female spectator could be heard over the high pitched screams – “Tis all right girls, it’s only his leg!”.

In 1971 the league trophy came to Leeside for the first time in 20 years. The title was secured after a playoff against Shamrock Rovers at Dalymount Park.

Despite the reputation for attacking football the league was won due to a superbly marshalled defence, including player-manager Dave Bacuzzi, Noel O’Mahony and goalkeeper Joe O’Grady.

A surprise FAI Cup semi-final replay defeat by Drogheda ended hopes of the double. Florrie Burke’s 1951 Cork Athletic side remain the last Cork club to have achieved that feat.

One week in 1972 defines the club’s history. Waterford were the visitors to the Lodge on the final day of the season. The ‘Blues’ required a draw to take the title, whereas Hibs had to win to force a playoff.  With an attendance unheard of in modern Irish football, 26,000 people witnessed one of the most remarkable season finales.

For 79 minutes Hibs were dominant and led two goals to nil. Waterford were reduced to ten men and looked beaten.

Many of the visiting supporters had already left and stuck in a traffic jam in Youghal when Carl Humphries pulled a goal back in the 79th minute.

Remarkably Johnny Matthews and Alfie Hale then scored in a dramatic 3-2 win that clinched Waterford’s fifth title in seven years.

via thehistocrats.wordpress.com

A week later the same sides met in the FAI Cup Final at Dalymount Park. A second-half Miah Dennehy hat-trick sent the Cup to the banks of the Lee.

The country’s second city has never settled for second best, but in truth they did play second fiddle to the Waterford side, won a sixth title the following season as Hibs remain on one.

By any objective analysis that Waterford side were better than Hibs but there was  a mystique and a magic around Hibs that defies logic and reason.

When Shelbourne and Hibs played out a scoreless draw in the final of 1973 the FAI finally agreed to take the replay out of Dublin. Flower Lodge played host to a final that became a damp squib due to incessant heavy rain, almost certainly contributing to the being a very disappointing 11,000.

The Cup was retained by the hosts, thanks to the man who began the fightback a year earlier that denied Hibs the title. Carl Humphries had transferred from Waterford and scored the only goal in the 83rd minute.

The cup wins brought Continental competition, bringing some giants of European football to Flower Lodge including Valencia, Borussia Monchengladbach and Schalke 04. Those three fixtures brought victories that illustrated the gap in class, however there was a lone victory over Pezoporikos, albeit with both legs played in Cork due to the dangerous political situation in Cyprus at the time.

The 1973 Cup win earned a tie against Czechoslovakian Cup winners Baník Ostrava. The subsequent loss was not as the disappointing the attendance, in hindsight probably signalled the beginning of the end.

Although 18,000 attended the derby against Cork Celtic – formerly Evergreen United – in December it was the visitors now making headlines. Celtic ended the season as champions and Hibs exited the FAI Cup after a bitterly disappointing home defeat by Saint Patrick’s Athletic.  John Crowley, speaking on behalf of the board assessed the declining situation:

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.

Dave Bacuzzi departed as manager and went to manage Dublin amateurs Home Farm, leading them to a sensational FAI Cup win in 1975. Contemporary reports suggest that, having relieved Bacuzzi of his duties Hibs then had a change of heart, but Bacuzzi had already given his word to Home Farm and, by all accounts, was a man of his word.

Crowds were dwindling rapidly in Irish football at the time and Hibs failed to buck the trend. A fourth place finish well off the pace in 1975 was followed by a 5th placed finish in 1976. A cup run in 1975 had kept the season alive but Shelbourne emerged victorious in a semi-final replay. A disappointing 1976 first round exit to Drogheda proved to be Hibs last appearance in the competition.

Hibs were still box office and were invited to tour the United States in the early summer of 1976. The other two International visitors to the U.S. that summer were England’s most successful club, Manchester United and Scotland’s most successful club – treble winning Rangers.

Hibs embarked on a three week long 11 game coast-to-coast tour. On June 11th 1976 in the Athletic Complex, East Haven Connecticut a Cork Hibs team took the field for the last time. Hibs signed off with a 4-3 win but their departure from football caused much bitterness.

The club’s secretary Shaun O’Sullivan issued an SOS via the Cork Examiner newspaper claiming the club needed £8000 to survive.

Just three hundred people showed up for a public meeting and a fundraising committee was setup up chaired by local politician Sean O’Leary.

Despite quickly raising £1,000 it wasn’t enough and the club was shortly wound up and resigned from the League of Ireland.

Senior football in Cork went into a sharp decline after that. Albert Rovers replaced Hibs but never finished in the top half; Celtic also struggled and finished rock bottom in 1979 and left the league.

A new club – Cork United – no connection to the 1940 Cork United- emerged in 1979  as the sole league representative but they too folded in 1982 leaving the city without a league club for two seasons.

A new Cork Hibernians did apply for league membership in the 1980’s but were unsuccessful.

In 1984 Cork City were formed – again no connection to the 1938 club of the same name – although it was 1990 before a Cork side finished in the top half of the table again.

City are now the best supported club in the league and seem certain to claim the 2017 title. However the glamour, the magic and the sheer box office appeal of Hibs seems a long way away.

Twenty six thousand for a domestic league game is now impossible and certainly referring to an 11,000 attendance as a major disappointment is a thing of the past. The Cork Hibernians are gone but the memories are still cherished

Author Details

Gary Spain
Gary Spain

Limerick born, Dublin based fan of Limerick FC and the Republic of Ireland national team. Gary has a keen interest in football across the island of Ireland and worldwide. He is a contributor to the Republic of Ireland and Limerick FC programmes and to Northern Ireland Football magazine.

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