CORK HIBERNIANS’ one and only League of Ireland championship success, almost 50 years ago, in 1970-'71 was a watershed in Cork soccer history.
It bridged a gap of 20 years to Cork Athletic’s triumph in 1950-'51 and heralded a new era on Leeside which had endured heartbreak and disappointment in the intervening years.
Hibs had replaced Athletic in 1957 but only had losing cup final appearances in 1960 and 1963 to Shelbourne and a Shield triumph in 1969 to show for all their efforts at the start of the 1970s.
The acquisition of former Arsenal, Manchester City and Reading full-back Dave Bucuzzi as player-manager following, as Plunket Carter observed in his brilliantly researched,’ A Century of Cork Soccer Memories’, "a stay for four days to view their (Hibernians) set up but stayed a little longer than he expected, not four days but four years", was the catalyst to a new dawn for the Rebels.
Hibs opened their campaign with a resounding 3-0 win over soon to be contenders Finn Harps at Flower Lodge on Sunday, October 4. Carl Davenport headed the opener five minutes into the second half before two magnificent goals from the dynamic Dave Wigginton sealed a comfortable win. A disappointing 0-0 draw with Limerick was followed by another draw, this time a 2-2 result against St Patrick’s Athletic at Inchicore.
Although Frank Connolly and veteran Donie Wallace scored for the visitors, two pieces of uncharacteristic generous Hibernians’ defending led to a Hayes penalty and own goal.
Next up was the long journey to Drogheda to maintain the pressure on early leaders Shelbourne and despite going behind to Michael Conroy goal, the visitors came away with a 2-1 win courtesy of a Davenport double in a 10-minute spell between the 54th and 54th minutes.
A 65th minute Miah Dennehy strike against Bohemians secured a fourth win in six keeping the Leesiders level with Shels at the top before Sonny Sweeney’s magnificent 47th-minute header cancelled out by Athlone Town’s John Minnock first-half injury time lead at St Mel’s Park.
The Cork Examiner reported that ‘Leaders slump in drab draw’ after Sligo Rovers extracted a 0-0 draw at Flower Lodge on Sunday, November 22. The draw extended Hibs’ lead to two points over a group of three which included Shelbourne, Waterford and Finn Harps. The first local against Cork Celtic took place on the second last day in November at Turner’s Cross and in front of the biggest gate of the season.
Bacuzzi whipped a cross in for Wigginton and Davenport to set up Lawson who beat Alec Ludzic for the lead in the 29th minute only for Carl Humphreys to equalize from a well-taken free-kick in the 58th minute. With three minutes remaining, Noel O’Mahony’s lob forward was headed on by Dennehy to Lawson who drilled in the crucial winner.
Hibs’ nine-match unbeaten run was ended by a Paul Martin 81st minute winner for Shamrock Rovers and a goalless draw with Shelbourne kept the Flower Lodge outfit sitting precariously on top with only four points incredibly separating eleven teams.
Finn Harps gained revenge for their early-season defeat when they won 2-1 at Ballybofey on January 3 with goals from Bradley and Sheridan, Davenport netting in between for the visitors who claw their way to joint level on eighteen points from fourteen played.
A 5-0 triumph over St Pat’s was next up with Wigginton (2), Lawson, Davenport and the evergreen Donie Wallace, in his 17th season in top-flight football and a league winner 10 years previously with Limerick, among the goals. Jimmy Murphy made his debut up front and handsomely repaid his manager’s selection by scoring the winner a week later against Drumcondra after Shay Doyle and Davenport (penalty) had earlier exchanged goals.
New signing Tony Marsden scored twice on his league debut on the last day in January along with Wallace in a 3-1 win over Drogheda only for two scoreless draws over Bohemians and Athlone to narrow the lead at the top to a point.
A 2-1 win over Dundalk and a replay win over Harps in the FAI Cup kept Hibs’ double challenge alive as two consecutive wins followed in the league over Sligo Rovers at the Showgrounds and Cork Celtic at Flower Lodge. Marsden scored twice in both games to maintain his goal-a-game ratio but failed to provide the magic touch against Shamrock Rovers at Milltown in another goalless 90 minutes.
Rovers at this stage had moved to within two points of the leaders and went a point ahead after Waterford’s Johnny Matthews 65th winner at Flower Lodge on April 11 set up a nail-biting last home fixture against Shelbourne a week later.
Wallace’s 59th-minute lead goal was cancelled out John Murray to set up a play-off with Rovers at Dalymount Park on Sunday, April 25 which a confident Hibernians won 3-1, Dennehy (2) and Wigginton with the goals.
On the Monday, thedelivered Hibs’ triumph in its back page headline,‘ Hibs Glorious In First Title Win.’ ‘For the first time in history the championship flag of the League of Ireland flies over Flower Lodge Stadium.’
In the intervening 50 years there would never be as long a gap in title successes on Leeside as Hibs’ triumph opened the door for Celtic and Cork City to follow.