By Gerry Desmond 

The history of association football at League of Ireland level in the city of Cork fully merits being described as unique. It is a tale that often mirrors that of the national economy, roller-coasting through repeated booms and busts. Much like any other town or city, it is also a story of famous teams, tumultuous local derbies and great players: legends such as Raich Carter, Jimmy Delaney, Charlie Tully, Bobby Tambling, George Best, Geoff Hurst (the only player to score a World Cup Final hat-trick), Rodney Marsh, Uwe Seeler (West Germany’s 1966 World Cup Final captain), Trevor Brooking, and Terry McDermott all wore Cork club colours. There were local heroes too, of course – Miah Lynch, Owen Madden, Paddy O’Leary, Seanie McCarthy, Austin Noonan, Donie Leahy, Miah Dennehy, Dave Barry, Patsy Freyne, Dinny Allen – even Jimmy Barry Murphy dropped his hurley for a while to join the ranks. It is a story that has seen the Cork name carried across European playing fields from Moscow to Reykjavik, from Stockholm to Nicosia, from Nantes to Haifa and many other cities in between. But Cork’s uniqueness especially lies in its succession of collapsed clubs which fell like bankrupt landmark businesses due to economic or legal circumstances. As often as not, this happened in the wake of successful eras such as Cork United, following their dominance in the 1940s, and Cork Hibernians and Cork Celtic three decades later. 

Football historian David Toms has discovered details of a match played in Mallow in late 1877,  the earliest known reference to a game played anywhere in County Cork. This was just an informal affair, but gradually the game’s popularity spread and by 1901 the original Munster Football Association (MFA) was founded by interested parties who met at 10, Marlboro Street. The MFA affiliated to the then governing body, the Belfast-based Irish Football Association, and undertook running a senior league, senior cup and many junior competitions throughout the province until 1914 when it disbanded on the outbreak of the Great War. 

Mallow V Lismore 1877 Foot-ball
The first game of 'foot-ball' played in Cork. Click here for a PDF of the
match report from the Cork Constitution of 4 December 1877.

The MFA did not reform until 1922, when the entire country was in the throes of political upheaval. Football’s political establishment had changed as well. Two new bodies – the Football Association of Ireland (soon to be renamed the Football Association of the Irish Free State) and the Football League of Ireland – had been set up in Dublin in June 1921, ceding from the Belfast mother association and operating independently with a new league kicking off that September. It was an all-Dublin affair initially with eight clubs in membership. Cork’s first rise to national prominence came in 1924 when Fordson FC, the team of the Ford Motor Company, reached the FAI Cup Final as a non-league side but lost by the only score to Athlone Town. Fordsons’ performance saw them elected to the League, thus becoming the city’s trail-blazers on the national stage. In 1926 the ‘Tractors’ returned to win the FAI Cup against Shamrock Rovers and from that moment on the triumphs and tragedies, glories and sufferings, scandals and shocks, implosions and expulsions of future Leeside clubs was set in motion... 

Fordson FC lasted until 1930, when the parent company held no further interest in funding a professional soccer team. Cork FC was formed to take their place and a truly remarkable sequence began. Within a decade Cork FC, Cork Bohemians and Cork City had come and gone, tasting limited success but more often struggling to survive those lean and hungry years. Cork United, with a host of home-grown talent returned from Britain following the outbreak of World War II, was the powerhouse of Irish football through the 1940s, winning five championships in six years, two FAI Cups, one double, and several other trophies before going into voluntary liquidation. Cork Athletic took up the mantle, won back-to-back titles and another double, but folded by 1957. Cork Hibernians filled Athletic’s place and endured hard times in the main until lighting up the early 1970s. Hibs disappeared almost overnight in 1976, another club to enter voluntary liquidation. Evergreen United had arrived on the scene in 1951 and changed title to Cork Celtic in 1959 to attract a broader following. Despite producing a combination of rugged defenders and lethal frontmen throughout the ‘60s, Celtic’s sole league title was not claimed until 1974. Five years later, in rag order financially, they lost their league status. Albert Rovers had stepped in when Hibs folded but struggled in the face of huge local apathy and, despite name changes to Cork Alberts and Cork United, the club was expelled from the league on the back of onerous financial debts in 1982. 

For two seasons Cork was without a League of Ireland representative until the election of the current Cork City FC in 1984. This new club inherited much of the public disenchantment suffered by Cork United who had failed to win a generation that had been soured by the loss of Hibs and Celtic. But City carried the torch through thick and thin and has now become the longest-established League of Ireland club to emerge from the southern capital, surpassing Celtic’s 1951-1979 membership. But it hasn’t been easy for City. The club was unsuccessful in its bid to secure Flower Lodge as a permanent home when it became available, the famous old ground instead being purchased by the Cork County GAA Board which has reconfigured it as Páirc Uí Rinn. City then played a couple of seasons at Turner’s Cross before undertaking a bold stadium development in Bishopstown. That project was troubled from the beginning, however,  and by the end of 1995 the club was in receivership and about to be added to the catalogue of failed entities when a group of businessmen took it over mid-season and returned it to soccer’s ‘spiritual home’ at Turner’s Cross in early 1996. Brian Lennox eventually emerged from this consortium to take sole ownership in 2002 and underwrote an era of full-time professionalism, relative success on the European stage, and a stylish Premier Division title success in 2005. But Lennox didn’t have unlimited financial resources and having failed to persuade local business interests to invest, the club came into the possession of Arkaga, a London-based equity investment company, which sailed into town promising a new state-of-the-art stadium, placed players on increased contracts and bonuses only to pull the plug on the entire venture without warning half-way through the following season. The squad was left unpaid as were many businesses in the city and around the country that the club dealt with – bus companies, hotels, and various suppliers. The Courts placed the club in an examinership process, saving it from immediate bankruptcy. The outcome saw another sole owner taking over, businessman and former politician Tom Coughlan. But the club hit the rocks again with a string of outstanding bills and players regularly without wages. The inevitable winding-up order against Coughlan’s holding company, Cork City FC Investment Ltd, produced a drawn-out, embarrassing and bitter series of court proceedings before the company was finally wound up in early 2010 with Coughlan subsequently banned by the FAI from any participation in the game for twelve months. 

As the trials and tribulations of the Arkaga takeover and the subsequent Coughlan ownership unfolded, a supporters’ trust was gaining hold among the fans – the Friends of the Rebel Army Society (FORAS). This group, initially set up with the sole intention of ‘safe-guarding’ the club and assisting it in any way possible, grew in strength to the point where it was able in February 2010, just days before the season kicked off, to obtain a licence to run the club under the temporary banner of Cork City Foras FC. The winding-up of the holding company had resulted in an automatic demotion to the First Division. By the turn of 2011 FORAS had regained the rights to the name of Cork City FC. Gradually the club was stabilised financially, invoices were met, players were paid regularly, and the year culminated in an exciting added-time victory over Shelbourne at Tolka Park to clinch the championship and promotion on the last day of the season. 

Since then the club has re-established itself in the top flight, reached an EA Sports Cup final, finished in runners-up spot in the Premier Division, returned to European competition and reached the 2015 FAI Cup Final. 

FORAS will operate the proposed regional development facility in Glanmire, which is part of the FAI’s national programme. Cork City has also established an academy in conjunction with Nagle Community College in Mahon and has been forging strong community links across the county and beyond as a truly community-based club. FORAS has produced an innovative document on the governance of the game, entitled The Heart of the Game, and is currently engaged with Supporters Direct Europe,, a continent-wide group campaigning and working on behalf of supporters’ rights and involvement in the game. By 2015 alone, FORAS board members had attended seminars in London, Antwerp, and Bremen. It’s a reciprocal learning process, with FORAS taking lessons from the experience and expertise of other supporters’ groups, while clubs as big as FC Germany’s Schalke 04 (listed in 2014 by Forbes as the twelfth-richest football club on the planet) have been happy to benefit from what FORAS has been doing both locally in Cork and within Irish football. 

Arguably, Cork soccer has never been stronger off the field and this is reflected by the strength of the club’s underage structure, its growth at senior level, its operation as a professional business giving employment, its democratic membership system, its growing fan base, its esteem beyond these shores and its vision for the future.

(December 2015)

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