Cork hurlers retained league 40 years ago with a team packed with All-Stars

Rebels haven't been too focused on the league in recent seasons, wining just three titles since 1981
Cork hurlers retained league 40 years ago with a team packed with All-Stars

John Horgan was an ever-present for the Cork hurlers, along with JBM, when they retained the league in 1981. Picture: Connolly Collection/SPORTSFILE

WAITING for the new GAA season to commence is providing ample time for almost daily reflection on what would usually be happening at this juncture of the year.

Truth is that in previous times we would all have seen both the Cork hurlers and footballers in action by this point in February with a whirlwind programme of games in early spring.

The leagues have proved interesting and at times very exciting, with most recent success stories focused on the Rebel footballers claiming three top-flight titles between 2010 and 2012.

In hurling, however, the memories of trophy presentations are becoming more distant.

It’s well documented that the county won their last title in 1998 with victory over Waterford, but overall in the past four decades, the Leesiders have only won three titles.

2021 marks 40 years since the last time Cork retained the hurling league crown.

It was also a milestone decider, as it was the fiftieth year of the competition and produced a first-time finalist in an emerging Offaly team.

Two of Cork’s current management team Ger Cunningham and Donal O’Grady (captain) were part of the selection that overcame the Faithful county by 3-11 to 2-8.

In those days of the early 1980s, the national leagues were of course run over a different time period. Games began in the autumn with a winter break followed by the conclusion of the group stages and knock out games in springtime.

Cork had entered the 1980/81 league as defending champions having defeated Limerick in a replayed final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 1980.

The Cork team which failed in their four-in-a-row bid when defeated by Galway in the 1979 semi-final. Back: Tim Crowley, Ray Cummins, Martin Doherty, Jimmy Barry Murphy, Johnny Crowley, Brian Murphy, Denis Coughlan. Front: Charlie McCarthy, Tom Cashman, Martin Coleman, John Horgan, Pat Moylan, Gerald McCarthy, Dermot McCurtain, John Fenton.
The Cork team which failed in their four-in-a-row bid when defeated by Galway in the 1979 semi-final. Back: Tim Crowley, Ray Cummins, Martin Doherty, Jimmy Barry Murphy, Johnny Crowley, Brian Murphy, Denis Coughlan. Front: Charlie McCarthy, Tom Cashman, Martin Coleman, John Horgan, Pat Moylan, Gerald McCarthy, Dermot McCurtain, John Fenton.

The sides finished deadlocked 2-10 apiece on May 4 before a strong last quarter saw the home team win the rematch by 4-15 to 4-6 in front of 34,453 fans.

The win marked a notable double for Jimmy Barry-Murphy who had been part of the Cork team that claimed the football title just a few weeks earlier with victory over Kerry.

As it transpired, Limerick were to earn sweet revenge for that hurling league setback when defeating Cork in the Munster final in Thurles later that year, a result that denied Cork a six in a row provincial win.

UNBEATEN

So what of the league storyline of 1980-'81 on the road to the Semple Stadium final on May 3?

Cork, managed by Gerald McCarthy, reached the decider as the only unbeaten team in the competition, winning five of their six group games, before overcoming Waterford in the penultimate round.

A very impressive 4-12 to 1-7 win over Wexford in New Ross on the last weekend of October kick-started the dominant campaign.

Two weeks later Fermoy hosted what was an emphatic 6-12 to 1-9 win over Waterford. When Cork returned from Ballinasloe on November 23, after recording a 3-10 to 0-14 win over Galway, it was clear that the titleholders were in an already lofty position in division 1A.

They rounded off the year making it 4 wins in 4 on December 8, with a 0-14 to 0-10 triumph over Limerick.

It all meant that there was wriggle room when the competition resumed in February. With two home games to follow, the smart money was very much on Cork to progress directly to the semi-finals.

Division 1A contained 7 teams and Cork had the opportunity to wrap up qualification early, as their free day came on the last weekend on March 8.

A close encounter materialised in what was a final prerun as the hosts edged out Offaly 0-10 to 0-7 on February 7, before old rivals Tipperary visited Páirc Uí Chaoimh two weeks later when scores were again scarce, with the final tally reading at 1-7 apiece.

The net result was that Cork were lined up against Waterford in the semi-final in mid-April. Here they had to produce a strong finish to defeat the Déise in Thurles by 1-19 to 2-10.

EVER-PRESENT

Interestingly over the course of the seven matches played to reach the final of 1981, Cork used 25 players, with just two ever-present starters: Blackrock defender John Horgan and top scorer Jimmy Barry-Murphy. The ace St Finbarr’s forward was responsible for 4-10 of his team’s overall tally of 15-84.

The scoring stats were spread across 15 different players with Pat Horgan 2-15, John Fenton 1-15 and Padraig Crowley 0-13 next on the leaderboard.

Padraig Horan was the marquee man in the forward line of opponents Offaly, the team captain leading the way with 3-19.

The other side of the knockout draw had produced more drama. Laois, who sensationally had beaten Tipperary by 1 point in an eight-goal quarter-final thriller, were themselves just edged out by Offaly by the minimum in the semi-final.

As for the final itself, early goals by Tim Crowley and Jimmy Barry-Murphy saw Cork register 2-3 in the opening six minutes.

Assisted by a gale-force wind they led by 2-8 to 1-0 at the interval. A second JBM goal extended the lead to 3-10 by 1-3, but despite a strong Offaly finish, Cork finished comfortable 3-11 to 2-8 victors.

Forty years on, only 1993 and 1998 have been league winning years - who knows what this uncertain sporting year of 2021 will serve up?

1981 League Final team: 

Ger Cunningham; Brian Murphy, Donal O’Grady, John Horgan; Dermot MacCurtin, Tom Cashman, Niall Kennefick; John Fenton, Pat Moylan; Tim Crowley, Pat Horgan, Padraig Crowley; Seanie O’Leary, Jimmy Barry-Murphy, Eamonn O’Donoghue.

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