The game is a curtain-raiser to the county senior hurling final between Blackrock and Imokilly. Leaving aside the question of whether that double-header undermines the status of the county football final, it begs another query: Where are the huge crowds of the ’70s gone and will Sunday herald a return to those crowds as the new stadium comes fully on line?
Those great attendances of 40 years ago were no urban legend. The high water mark was the county final between St Finbarr’s and Glen Rovers in 1977, which pulled 34,151 down to a then-new Páirc Uí Chaoimh (the Barr’s won handily) and remains the record for a club county final anywhere in the country.
Throughout the decade, those two clubs and Blackrock were the powers in the county, meeting in deciders in what amounted almost to a round-robin competition, the winners often going on to collect Munster and All- Ireland club honours.
That meant Cork-based hurling fans had the best club hurling on their doorstep every autumn, their appetites whetted by a county side which dominated the decade, winning three All-Ireland titles in a row from 1976 to 1978.
The quality and competitiveness were augmented by other factors: The population of the city and county in the 70s was approximately two-thirds what it is now and other distractions were far fewer, not just in sport, but in other entertainment areas, such as the cinema and the pub. After that, choices ran out rapidly.
A smaller population with fewer options and limited leisure opportunities tended to turn out in bigger numbers, proportionately, for a glamorous fixture, with those attendances being boosted by the virtuous circle of circumstances. The teams were star-studded, the match-ups were endlessly discussed, the focus of the few media outlets of the period was total.
The county senior hurling final was literally the only game in town, and the nickname ‘the little All-Ireland’ was entirely unironic.
When the city, in particular, suffered its economic slump in the 80s, attendances were affected, though numbers for the big show stayed relatively healthy. Diarmuid O’Donovan of the Cork County Board points out that even in the late 80s, 20,000 people went to a county hurling final in Cork between Glen Rovers and St Finbarr’s. O’Donovan added that big attendances at county finals between the ‘big three’ had a strong lineage going back to the 50s, with over 31,000 watching the Glen and Barr’s replay their hurling final in 1955. The key aspect of that statistic, he points out, is that it represents roughly 10% of the county’s population at the time (336,000); similarly, the 1977 attendance of 34,151 corresponds roughly to 10% of the county’s population then (approximately 353,000).
Attendances at the county hurling final in recent years have hovered around the 10,000 mark (two years ago it was over 11,000). It’s still a healthy figure in a national context but — as O’Donovan has pointed out — in a county with a population of well over 500,000 people, that represents a significant proportionate drop, from 10% in the heyday of the competition to 2%.
One of the key drivers in attendances isn’t the hinterland of the clubs concerned, it appears. One would hardly expect Newtownshandrum, a tiny hamlet over an hour’s drive from the city, to bring a huge following to a county final, for instance.
Yet, they contested a county final in 2005 against Cloyne and, when the crowd for that game is added to the 2004 attendance, for Cloyne versus Na Piarsaigh, the combined total was over 40,000 people.
Significantly, Cork were All-Ireland senior hurling champions both years. In 1955, Cork were coming off the back of a three-in-a-row of All-Ireland titles, with many of the participants on that Glen Rovers team. Also in the 70s, as noted, the Cork county final regularly showcased many of the players who had figured in the All-Ireland final some weeks beforehand.
This weekend Blackrock return to county final day looking for a first title since 2002. Their opponents, Imokilly, won their last senior crown the year before that. Given the hinterland both sides draw from, the county football final replay (which pulled in almost 10,000 spectators on Sunday), the novelty of the new stadium and the official opening, the attendance could reach 70s levels.
Sustaining that kind of attendance, however, seems to need All-Ireland success. That’s one for the new Cork hurling manager.