THIS year marks the 80th anniversary of Cork United’s historic double-winning triumph of 1940/41.
Founded less than a year beforehand, United blazed a trail of glory in just under eight seasons in the forties which included five league championships, including three-in-a-row, two FAI Cup victories, two Shield triumphs, two Munster Senior Cup wins, as well as appearing in two losing FAI Cup Finals, to end the decade as the most successful Cork club ever.
Founded on February 6, 1940, the Leesiders, in a titanic struggle with Munster rivals Waterford which went right to the wire in league and cup, carried off the double at the first attempt to not only become the first Cork team to do so but also the first to ever win the league championship.
United’s early-season form proved understandably uninspiring as exits in the Dublin City Cup to Shelbourne and to St James’ in the Shield, run on a league basis, finishing 11 points behind the winners in eighth position, didn’t auger well for the league campaign.
Despite defeating Brideville 4-1 at the Mardyke in their opening fixture on Sunday, November 17, 1940, the Leesiders slipped to fourth in the table after a draw and a 2-1 home defeat to early leaders Bohemians, Turnbull equalising for United after O’Flanagan had opened the scoring in the 10th minute.
Another damaging defeat followed in early December to Waterford at Kilcohan Park; the Blues scoring four without reply through Cameron (2), Coad, and O’Keeffe.
Lying seventh, a win was a must when Dundalk came to the Dyke on Sunday, December 22, but it wasn’t until the 80th minute when Jack O’Reilly crossed for Bobby McFarlane to beat Cluskey that the points were made safe.
From there on, the highly-rated Cork forward-line which included returned exiles O’Reilly (ex-Norwich City), Irish international Owen Madden (ex-Birmingham City) along with talented locals ‘Big’ Sean McCarthy and Liam O’Neill, clicked into gear to propel the Rebels on a 12- match unbeaten run in league and cup.
Away wins over Limerick (3-1) and Drumcondra (4-1) and home wins over Shelbourne (2-1) and champions St James’ Gate (5-0) took United top for the first time ahead of Waterford and Shamrock Rovers.
The new leaders consolidated their lead with wins over Brideville (3-1) and a hugely important 4-2 win over Rovers after a shaky start in front of the biggest home crowd of the season, 5,445.
In between, goals from McCarthy and O’Neill secured United’s safe passage into the last eight of the FAI Cup following the 2-0 win over local Senior League rivals Evergreen.
On Sunday, March 2, 1941, United needed late goals from McFarlane and O’Neill to shake off Drums 4-2 in the cup quarter-final after going two up in the opening half-hour but suffered a 2-1 home defeat to title contenders Waterford in the league a week later to remain top, two points ahead of their rivals who had a game in hand.
A week later Waterford picked up the three points they needed in a 3-0 win over Dundalk to go joint top and with both teams winning their next encounters, both travelled to Dalymount Park on the weekend of March 29/30 for the cup semi-finals. A 27,000 strong crowd watched United ease past Dundalk 3-0 on the Sunday after Waterford drew 2-2 with Rovers on the Saturday.
The Leesiders’ league form dipped in April after draws with Drums 1-1 and Shelbourne 2-2, the two points being still enough to open a two-point gap over the Blues who, surprisingly, lost to Brideville for a second time, 3-2.
The cup final on Sunday, April 20 at Dalymount ended 2-2, but in an explosive replay three days later at the same venue, two goals from O’Reilly and one from McCarthy clinched the first half of the double for United after winning captain Madden and Waterford winger Jackie O’Driscoll were sent-off following an altercation early in the second half.
A two-one win over Bray and a draw with Limerick completed United’s campaign on 30 points from 20 matches, but Waterford finished joint top by winning their last two to force a play-off.
Fortunately for United, the Waterford squad failed to agree personal terms with the club and United were handed the championship for the first time to complete what seemed, after a quarter of the season, an unlikely double.