“It seems that money means more than players” argued a vociferous Gerald McCarthy in an interview with Michael Ellard in March of ‘78, his vexation owing to the county board’s decision to migrate from the tried and trusted knock-out formats that had governed the senior club championships since their inception in 1887. The experiment, McCarthy opined, would “kill the goose that laid the golden egg”. The proverbial goose in question was in reference the Cork Senior Hurling Championship, which for much of the ‘70’s, fell under the pseudonym of the ‘Mini All-Ireland’. The alias was a fitting one too.
Since the inauguration of a formal All-Ireland Club Hurling Championship at the turn of the decade, the fledgling competition had been under the thumb of Cork’s ‘Big Three’. The previous year, St. Finbarr’s had defeated the reigning All-Ireland champions, Glen Rovers in the county final in front of a record crowd of over 34,000 (roughly 10% of the county’s population at the time) en route to their second All-Ireland club title and a sixth for Cork representatives in eight years. On the face of it, club hurling in Cork was in good stead. At inter-county level too of course, with the Rebels on course for three-in-a-row. Off the pitch however, the situation was much different.
When Páirc Úi Chaoimh was first opened in June 1976, on the site of the old Athletic Grounds, it left a crippling debt in its wake. The initial contract price for the development was £985,000 but inflation as a result of the global oil crisis at the time ensured that the final cost reached £1,700,000, a staggering total even allowing for the new stadium’s “most modern design and facilities”. The Cork County Board were left with a debt of over £700,000 and initiatives were soon put in place to generate some much-needed income. An annual levy on clubs was introduced (£100 for senior, £75 for intermediate and £50 for junior) while a trading stamp scheme was also implemented. To the chagrin of traditionalists, concerts on the hallowed turf became commonplace, with the inaugural Siamsa Cois Laoi (‘Fun by the Lee’) festival taking place down the Park in ’77.
At the launch of the music festival, chairman of the County Board, Donal O’Sullivan outlined the perilous financial situation, telling the Cork Examiner that “even though the County Board succeeded in raising £650,000 from its own resources and received considerable grants from other units of the Association, there is a debt of £800,000 still due, and the repayment of this loan means that a big sum must be found annually”. At the annual convention of the County Board the following year, the main issues of stadium debt and championship restructuring intertwined. The previous winter, a special committee had been established to examine the standard of the senior championships and address the existing imbalance between the competing clubs. The report submitted by the committee recommended a radical overhaul of the knock-out system that had been in place for over ninety years, to be replaced by a round-robin format, with the top five seeded teams comprising the one group.
It was estimated that the new system would bring in an extra £30,000. In his report to the delegation, County Secretary Frank Murphy made clear that any additional revenue would be welcomed before warning delegates that any changes to the championship structures must “not jeopardise the financial returns of these competitions as in its present position, the county committee can not afford any drop in receipts”. Fiscal motives did little to dissuade vehement opposition however, with Vice-President of the Board Jack Barrett arguing that “the very element of championship is ‘live or die, lose you are out, win you are in”. Unsurprisingly, representatives of St. Finbarr’s and Glen Rovers also voiced their dissatisfaction although support was forthcoming from weaker clubs such as Sarsfields and Youghal. After lengthy debate, traditionalists were once again piqued and the motion was passed. 143 to 93.
The general reaction of Cork GAA players was that of disappointment. “A championship is a championship”, decried Glen Rovers’ Denis Coughlan, “a team has one chance to prove itself and if they fail to avail of the opportunity on a given day, then it’s their tough luck”. The Hurler of the Year even went as far as saying that players may become “psychologically drained of the killer instinct” and worried that the innovation could threaten Cork’s chances in the Munster Championship. Nemo Ranger’s Frank Cogan wasn’t shy about venting his dissatisfaction either, dolefully asserting that “it’s not a championship anymore”. Two months later however, Cogan was glad of the reprieve as the Barr’s felled Nemo in their opening game. For the first time in their history, championship defeat didn’t signal the end of the line.
In the hurling championship, the disparity between the Old Order and the rest of the group soon made apparent the potential failings of the round-robin system. The other two contenders in Group 1, UCC and Youghal, were routinely beaten in each of their games against the ‘Big Three’ and when the Barr’s beat Youghal in the third round of games, it effectively rendered the remaining fixtures meaningless. Those games were never played. In Group 2, Bandon and Nemo Rangers finished level on points and needed a play-off to determine who would progress to the quarter-finals. In their third championship meeting in just over a month (the first play-off game went to a replay) and with familiarity evidently breeding contempt, the match was abandoned after a melee erupted between both sets of players and non-players. In what was another hammer blow to the dignity of the competition, both teams were disqualified.
Nemo Rangers, having recovered from their loss to St. Finbarr’s and perhaps benefitting from the early dismissal of their hurlers, went on to win their fifth football championship in seven years, beating St. Michaels in the final. Blackrock proved untouchable throughout the year and defeated Glen Rovers comfortably in the hurling final to record their fourth championship success of the decade. With the new system designed principally to correct the imbalance that existed between city and rural clubs, the emergence of four county finalists from Cork’s urban environs did little to convince the public of its merit.
The projected monetary gains which underpinned much of the debate in favour of the new system also proved to be wildly optimistic. At the end of the season, despite the increase in games and the doubling of admission prices to £1.50, championship takings showed a loss of £5,000 on the previous year. Ironically however, the decline in profits manifested itself in the knock-out stages of the championship, as opposed to the much-maligned earlier rounds. Amazingly, the hurling semi-final between Glen Rovers and St. Finbarr’s, which took place less than twelve months after a record crowd crammed into the new Páirc, was played out before an attendance of less than 6,000. The week before, less than 1,000 loyal followers showed up to watch the football semi-final between the Barr’s and St. Michaels. In both instances, the competing teams had previously met in the group stages, providing the most tangible evidence to support the argument that the new system had stripped the prestigious competitions of much of their allure.
Nevertheless, the group-stages in their newest guise remained in situ for the next two seasons. The hurling championship returned to straight knock-out in ’81 with its footballing equivalent following in its path a year later (the group stages of the ’81 senior football championship was also played under a round-robin format, with the groups divided up on a city/rural basis as opposed to by seeding). The argument could be made that the experiment succeeded in providing a stable footing for promoted clubs and ultimately aided the likes of Midleton and Castlehaven in their subsequent successes. However, it wasn’t until 1983 that a club outside of St. Finbarr’s, Glen Rovers and Blackrock managed to topple one of the ‘Big Three’, Youghal’s shock victory over Blackrock in the first round of that year’s championship exemplifying the capacity for giant-killing acts which simply don’t exist within the relative safety of a group system.
Forty-two years on from that novel experiment, the pros and cons of round-robin formats are still being debated within Cork GAA circles. Meanwhile, the jaw-dropping debt accumulated following the redevelopment of Páirc Úi Chaoimh remains the white elephant in the room. The more things change eh?