By Larry Ryan
In a week when La Liga confirmed its intention to break America by transporting domestic fixtures across the pond, it’s easily forgotten that Cork Hibernians once played an entire campaign stateside, as part of the American Soccer League.
The story of Hibs’ bizarre 1976 summer season is told in Michael Russell’s new book detailing the history of Cork’s glamour club — the long-gone but never forgotten Hibs.
The ASL went national that year, expanding West by adding franchises such as the Los Angeles Skyhawks, Oakland Buccaneers and Sacramento Spirits to the likes of the New Jersey Americans and the New York Apollos.
And they looked east to include Cork Hibs, the box office name in Irish football alongside Waterford.
“It was a strange format,” Russell explains. “They didn’t take part in the league as such, They were a sort of a joker, they played the 11 other teams, but didn’t win points. But any points won against them counted for their opponents. It was a paid holiday really. They had great craic out there.”
The core of the travelling part were Hibs regulars — Ger Spillane, Noel O’Mahony, John Brohan, Jack Trainer and company. A handful of guest players such as Damien Richardson, then with Gillingham, also travelled, along with Manchester United European Cup winner Shay Brennan.
There were plenty of well-known names in the opposition ranks too. Liverpool ‘colossus’ Ron Yeats played for eventual champions Skyhawks, who beat Hibs 4-0. The format awarded the American sides five points for a win, two for a ‘tie’ and a point for every goal up to a maximum of three.
Results were mixed for the tourists, understandably since they played 11 matches in 23 days, jetting coast to coast and back with less than textbook refueling along the way, as Scotsman Trainer recalls in the book.
“I can remember that the air crews when flying from city to city used to fuel us with alcohol free of charge because of the guys singing and the good-humoured banter whilst in the air. They also passed notes onto the next crew to look after us so as the entertainment continued.
“On one particular flight I remember the actor Sidney Poitier applauding the lads.”
But alongside six defeats, Hibs did manage four wins, beating the Sacramento Spirits 4-0, Oakland Buccaneers 5-3, Cleveland Cobras 3-2 and Connecticut Yankees 4-3, drawing 1-1 with New York Apollos.
Alas, that win over the Yankees at the Athletic Complex, East Haven proved the last ever game for Hibs. Unknown to the travelling party, back home the financial crisis enveloping the club had deepened.
“It had nothing to do with the tour,” Russell says. “That was all paid for by the Americans.
“They were reportedly £15,000 in debt: £7,500 was owed to the Revenue Commissioners, £2,500 to their bankers and £5,000 to various creditors. To make things worse, the International Inter-League Board had ordered them to pay £1,000 to Rotherham United for the transfer of Mike O’Grady in September 1974. In addition, the AOH, owners of Flower Lodge, were looking to increase the rent to 11% takings from home games.”
Club secretary Shaun O’Sullivan announced a public meeting for the Stardust Ballroom on Cork’s Grand Parade on July 13 with the club needing £8,000 to survive.
“Only 300 attended,” Russell says, “a very small number when one considers that Flower Lodge once packed in 25,000 for a crucial league match in 1972. Only a few hundred pounds was raised.”
More fundraising was attempted but by August 24 the club had officially withdrawn from the League of Ireland, so soon after a glorious period of two FAI Cups and the 1971 title win.
Russell was among the heartbroken. Though a Kerryman, he was a devoted Hibs follower in those halcyon days when player-manager Dave Bacuzzi brought the title back to Cork for the first time in 20 years and pin-up boy Carl Davenport put thousands on the crowd wherever he went.
His book evokes those glory years and so many of the Hibs greats were there at its launch in the Kiln last week: Donie Wallace, John Herrick, John Brohan, Dinny Allen, Martin Sheehan, Pat Goggin, Joe O’Grady and many more.
It nags Russell still, that fickleness of the Cork soccer public, that saw 25,000 in 1972 drop to just 11,000 at the Lodge for the 1973 Cup final replay, “because it was raining that night”.
By the end, Hibs were bringing in the likes of Rodney Marsh to get the turnstiles clicking, with crowds down around 4,000.
That’s the sort of number that attended Cork City’s recent clash with Dundalk at Turner’s Cross. And Russell worries any protracted period without glory will see Leeside momentum ebb away again.
He wants City to rebound from recent gloom at Dalymount tomorrow and sees inspiration in that magical week in 1972 when Hibs were at the centre of all Cork life.
A week full of controversy and dismay and celebration is still talked about by anybody over 50 who knows Cork football.
First the despondency when Waterford sealed the title at the thronged Lodge. The visitors were two-nil down and reduced to ten men, but three goals in the last ten minutes sickened Hibs, with many of the away fans long gone to beat the traffic.
An unchanged Hibs side went out for a rematch in the cup final a week later in front of 22,500 at Dalymount.
“Bacuzzi deserves great credit for lifting morale,” Russell recalls. “And in a great game, Miah Dennehy’s hat-trick brought home Hibs’ first FAI Cup to jubilant celebrations in the city.”
City can’t win another at cup at Dalymount tomorrow, but they can take a giant step, and they may need to draw on the spirit of Bacuzzi’s Hibs.
Michael Russell’s book Hibs! A History of Cork Hibernians FC 1957-1976 is published by Onstream and is on sale now. All profits from the book go to Marymount Hospice.