One of my earliest footballing memories is of City’s first final against a rampaging, treble-chasing Derry City in 1989. My father brought my brother Eoin and I up on the train and into Dalymount where we watched with horror as Davy Barry hit the post only for the ball to cruelly run along the line before reaching the safety of a Derry player at the other post. That moment confirmed in my young mind the importance of small margins in football, and especially in cup finals. Derry would, inevitably, win the replay.
Three years later in 1992 City were back in the final, played at Lansdowne Road, where we were beaten again, this time 1-0 by Bohemians. If I was disappointed, my father was absolutely gutted. All these years later, even as I’m writing this piece, I finally understand why he must have been so bereft - he had been waiting for far longer than I.
I wasn’t aware back then it had been nearly 20 years since the last Cork FAI Cup win, way back in 1973, by the much fabled Cork Hibernians side. So when my father and the rest of Cork’s football community were finally released from their cup captivity by big Derek Coughlan’s powerfully headed winner against Shelbourne in 1998, there was an understandable outpouring of delight and relief in equal measure — after all, by that point, they had been waiting 25 years for deliverance.
After 1998, Cork City’s next appearance in the FAI Cup final was in 2005 when we were defeated 2-0 by Drogheda United, denying my own City side the double. I played on that dark day and, quite honestly, it still hurts to talk about it. However, the club came back to win in 2007 against Longford Town in the RDS which somewhat made up for the loss two years earlier. Unfortunately, I received a yellow card in the semi-final and was suspended for the final. I have the medal, and it means a lot, but it will never be the same.
I recently spoke with the much loved Cork City club secretary Jerry Harris who confirmed that, happily, the rules in relation to cup final suspensions have changed.
“I spoke with the FAI on many occasions since 2007,” Jerry told me, “and I actually used your example, Neal, for why there needed to be a change. As you’ll remember only too well, anyone who tallied up four yellow cards from about the three-quarters point of the season onwards, would serve their suspension on the last day of the season – the day of the cup final.”
I think I got my third yellow with about six to eight games to go (both league and cup games counting towards the suspension) and so had to try and negotiate all of those matches without picking up a further yellow. Unfortunately in the semi-final I picked up another, and so that was me out of the final. Happily, nowadays, players receive an amnesty for the final — something current Cork City right back Michael McSweeney will avail of .
Seeing Cork City reach their first final in eight years is an illustration of the striking progress the club has made since their appearance in that final of 2007 followed by a period of alarming turmoil for the club.
“Well we all know about the troubles the club has had since, but the fans taking over was definitely the right move,” said Jerry. “It’s been great. After FORAS came in I contacted a member of their board, Sonya O’Neill, who is a neighbour of mine, to tell her I would help in any way.”
I wasn’t surprised to hear of Jerry’s willingness to help. He has been helping Cork football teams, often to his own financial detriment, for many a year now. It all started back in 1953 when he went to his first cup final which Cork Athletic won against fellow Cork side Evergreen after a replay.
“I went to the first match in Dalymount with 20,000 others, and when it was a draw we hoped the replay would be on in Cork,” he recalled.
“But the FAI didn’t agree and only 6,000 turned up for the replay, which Athletic won. My next final was when Cork Athletic were beaten 3-2 by Shamrock Rovers in 1956. Athletic were 2-0 up – with Jimmy Delaney barging the keeper for one of the goals. Yes, it was still allowed in those days – so long as the keeper’s feet were on the ground, you could barge him.”
My mind turned back to big Derek Coughlan and how splendid he would have been at barging a goalkeeper...
“But the rule changed not long after that,” Jerry continued. “Anyway, the story goes that, with Athletic 2-0 up with about 12 minutes to go, club official Donie Forde went off to get champagne for the lads. But coming back in the gate, he was just in time to see Ronnie Nolan scoring the winner for Rovers.”
Jerry also mentioned Cork Hibs’ loss to Shelbourne in 1960 when a Cork goal was disallowed because the Hibs ‘trainer’ had encroached on the field of play to treat an injured player.
“There was a lot of controversy about it,” said Jerry, explaining that a ‘trainer’ was partly a coach, partly a physio. “Although the word physio wasn’t invented at the time. The trainer was a man with a sponge and a bottle of water. Things have changed a lot since then.”
Of all the Cork sides he’s watched and been involved in, Jerry seems to reserve special affection for the City team of the late ‘80s and ‘90s which included the likes of Pat Morley, Stephen Napier, Dave Barry, Patsy Freyne, Declan Daly, Phil (Biscuits) Harrington, Liam (Gunter) Murphy and, of course, present manager John Caulfield. They were a tough, skilful and dedicated bunch, and brought football back onto the horizon in Cork after the demise of Cork United in 1982 (with whom Jerry was a director).
“Noel O’Mahony was a good friend of mine and brought me into the Cork City set-up around ‘86 and that’s when I got to know those lads,” said Jerry. And what does the man many would regard as ‘Mr Cork City’ make of the club’s chances against the league champions on Sunday?
“I’m looking forward to the final,” he says, “and although Dundalk are a very good side, we have lads who have been there and done it before. The likes of Muz (Dan Murray), Alan Bennett, Liam Kearney, Colin Healy and John O’Flynn have all played in previous FAI Cup Finals. On the other hand, it will be the first for many of the Dundalk players, and experience often counts for more in cup finals.”
And Jerry Harris would know. Here’s hoping he’s right. It’s been too long.
Ahead of Sunday’s final against Dundalk, Cork City legend Jerry Harris remembers days of heartbreak and glory