It sounds more like a fairytale than a genuine slice of Irish sporting history: Did a team made up of Ford workers really win the most prestigious trophy in Irish soccer?
The answer, incredibly, is yes.
In 1926, Fordsons pulled off one of the great giant-killings in the tournament’s history and won the FAI Cup — then known as the Free State Cup.
It is a story packed with larger than life heroes, but it begins five years earlier.
Amidst the turbulence of 1921, with the Partition of Ireland, the establishment of the Irish Provisional Government — predecessor of the Free State Government — and the evacuation of British Forces from the 26 counties, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) was formed.
The new sporting body came about after the clubs outside Ulster severed their connection with the Belfast-based Irish Football Association which had governed the game since 1880.
Soccer was not reorganised in Cork until 1922, when the Munster Football Assocation (MFA), which had been founded in 1901 but lain dormant since the outbreak of World War I in 1914, awoke from its slumbers.
One of the MFA’s founder members was Fordsons, a factory team made up of workers from the new Henry Ford automobile plant on the Marina.
Read more: 100 years on, how Henry Ford ignited his Cork dream
Little did Henry realise when making his momentous decision to start building his cars in Cork that he was also sowing the seeds from which would spring the great Fordsons soccer team. One of their players, the legendary Harry Buckle, would be the driving force behind the birth of the new football association in Cork.
The MFA was formed at a meeting in Desmond’s Hotel in Cork city on March 19, 1922, which was illegally chaired by Harry — he was a professional footballer and, therefore, could not serve on the body!
The Irish international was one of a group of soccer enthusiasts who tried to organise football in the city and showed his versatility when he refereed the first Inter-Provincial match between Munster and Leinster, played at Victoria Cross.
Fordsons FC were founded in 1921 after they played a challenge match against Clifton. Through the untiring efforts of secretary Mr Gillingham, the club survived its first season and joined the Munster Senior League in 1922.
They entered the FAI Cup — then known as the Free State Cup — in 1922-23, but were defeated by eventual winners Alton (Belfast) in the semi-final.
Still a non-league team, they qualified for the final the next season (1923-24) and were unluckily defeated 1-0 by Athlone.
Fordsons entered the Free State League in 1924-25 and opened their own ground at Pic Du Jer, Ballinlough, in August, 1924.
In only their second season as a League of Ireland team, 1925/26, they were on the FAI Cup trail again — and this time, it was to end in glory. In the first round, they defeated Shelbourne 2-1 in a replay, after the first game ended 2-2 — a fine scalp as Shelbourne went on to win the championship that season, losing just one game. Athlone were sent packing 3-2 by Fordsons in round two.
In the semi-final, originally fixed for the Mardyke but staged at Victoria Cross, Fordsons trounced Bray 4-1. The change of venue was necessary as the FAI refused to pay 15% of the takings to UCC.
All Cork was agog with excitement in anticipation of the fateful St Patrick’s Day meeting with Shamrock Rovers in Dalymount Park, Dublin, in the cup final — but the supporters were living in hope rather than expectation for an almost impossible task faced the side nicknamed the ‘Tractors’.
Shams were the cup holders and their record against Fordsons was played six, won six, with their superiority ranging from 7-0 (a game which marked the opening of the Pic Du Jer stadium in 1924) to 6-0 and 5-0!
Fordsons had never even scored a goal against the mighty Rovers, who, incidentally, still hold the record for most FAI Cup wins, with 24.
Ironically, the team beaten by Shams in the semis was also a works team, Jacobs Football Club, comprising staff from the Dublin biscuit factory.
Undaunted by the odds stacked against them, several thousand of the Cork team’s fans headed to Dublin on the morning of March 17, 1926, availing of a specially arranged 6.45am mass at St Patrick’s Church.
After all prayerful obligations were fulfilled the chanting began as the crowds swarmed into the then-named Glanmire Road Station, roaring, “Come on the Tractors!”
But perhaps the most famous chant of that era was the Shamrock Rovers battle cry, “Give it to Bob!”
Big, burly Bob Fullam, one of the greatest forwards of his day, was the idol of Shams fans and whenever they were awarded a close-in free-kick or penalty their supporters roared “Give it to Bob and the game is won!”
An attendance record was created when the biggest crowd ever seen at a football match in the Free State packed Dalymount. Every inch of space was occupied by a swaying, cheering crowd while others, more venturesome, sought precarious positions of vantage on top of the stands and walls surrounding the ground.
Within minutes of the kick-off, Farrell put Rovers ahead. It seemed like a case of ‘Deja Vu all over again’. However, Fordsons responded almost immediately as Dave Roberts headed a fine equaliser.
Skipper Jack Sullivan, Jack Baylor, Barney Collins and Sally Connolly then had to be at their best to contain Shams’ relentless attacks. They were rewarded when Fagan put them in front again and then controlled the game up to the interval.
Fordsons came out fighting for the second half and in the 65th minute the Cork contingent went wild when Paddy Barry equalised.
With time running out Rovers were awarded a penalty. “Give it to Bob”, roared the delighted Dubliners and well might they wax jubilant as no goalkeeper was ever known to have stopped one of Fullam’s power-packed penalties.
The crowd was hushed as he drove a mighty kick towards keeper Billy O’Hagan, who saved it! But the ball rebounded into play and in dashed Fullam to clinch it. Out dashed O’Hagan to dive fearlessly at his feet, pushing the ball away from the forward as he was about to pull the trigger.
For his heroism, O’Hagan got a kick in the head and was lying inert, his hands covering his bloody head, when Fordsons’ Caribine lost the race with O’Farrell for the loose ball. But, to the amazement of the fans, O’Farrell shot wide of an empty goal.
Spurred on by their good fortune, Fordsons sweated blood in a quest for a winner. So far they had achieved the seemingly impossible — they had scored for the first time against Rovers, survived a penalty kick from Fullam and looked more likely than the raging hot favourites to snatch a late winner.
Cometh the hour...
Roberts passed to Barry who, despite being tackled by two defenders, managed to fire past the outstretched hands of O’Reilly into the corner of the net.
Frenzied Fordsons fans jumped the railings to celebrate with the players and two minutes later the final whistle was blown. Again, the fans swarmed over the barriers and shouldered Barry and O’Hagan, the heroes of the day, towards the stand for the presentation.
After the match, Corkonians seemed to take possession of O’Connell Street and the broad footpaths were not wide enough to accommodate the multitude of chanting fans.
It was just a little foretaste of what the homecoming was going to be like in Pana the following night.
Need it be added that no untoward incident marred the spirit of the historic day? The scenes that marked the triumphant return were unprecedented in their colour, spectacle and excitement.
At a subsequent victory ball arranged by Fordson’s social club, Edward Grace, Managing Director of the Cork plant, was presented with the match ball and declared he was “still quite hoarse from cheering the victors”.
Ford’s connection to the FAI Cup remains strong and they were its main sponsors for several years. The current holders of the FAI Cup are Cork City.