SMURFITS' participation in the Cork Business Shipping League lasted only eight seasons, but the First Division championship success of 1995/96, 25 years ago, went right to the wire in a titanic play-off.
On Sunday morning, April 14, 1996, with two rounds of matches remaining, Smurfits faced Postal Workers at Smurfit Park, knowing that even a win might not have been sufficient to stay in the title race. Few teams had come straight up from winning the Second Division championship to win the First Division, but this Smurfits side, under the astute management of the wily Dave O’Connell and assistant, Denis Cambridge, bounced back when the need was greatest.
The league campaign got underway on Sunday, September 10, 1995, with the corrugated-packaging firm overcoming Postal 2-1 at Smurfit Park.
After drawing 2-2 with Apple Computers on the last Sunday in September, mixed form in October and November allowed Postal to get back into the championship race, unbeaten right through to Christmas, courtesy of four successive wins and a 2-2 draw with ESB. Smurfit’s did lay down a marker with a 4-1 home win over Roches Stores, on October 15, when the title contenders met for the first time.
The year ended with Smurfit’s in pole position, with 11 games played, three points ahead of Roches, with Postal a further point behind.
The momentum switched to Roches in the new year, first gaining revenge over the leaders with a 4-2 win on January 7, before opening up a four-point gap by mid-February, after home wins over the Workers (2-1) and Aer Lingus ( 5-1).
In early April, Roches drew 2-2 with Aer Lingus, while, on the same day, the evergreen John Browne scored the only goal of the match, for Postal, in the 68th minute, to secure all three points away to Garda and make the 13-time champions firm favourites to win yet another title.
Despite losing 2-1, for the second time, to Smurfit’s, at Rochestown College on April 14, the Workers went into their last home match of the season with 32 points from 17 matches, needing a victory over Roches (30 from 17) to win the league, while Smurfit’s waited in the wings with 28 points from 16 matches.
Smurfit’s scorers in the crunch win over Postal included Fionán O’Neill (12) and Finbarr McCarthy (70), with Browne again on target for the losers.
Grand-slam Sunday turned out to be April 28, with the ESB Grounds and Rochestown College the venues to decide the championship.
Smurfit’s realised that nothing else but three points would suffice in their clash with ESB, and hope that AIB Cup finalists, Roches Stores, could turn the tables on Postal.
Goals from Eoin O’Neill (2), Fionán O’Neill, Greg Twomey, and Frank McCarthy sealed a comprehensive win for the third-placed visitors, while all eyes were on the meeting of first and second a few miles away, in Rochestown.
Tom Lynch put the league leaders in front on the half-hour, only for Noel McCarthy to equalise five minutes later. Postal’s Liam O’Callaghan restored the Workers’ lead in the 51st minute before Pat O’Sullivan popped up with a precious equaliser and Sean O’Farrell added a late winner for the Patrick St outfit, with three minutes left to end Postal’s aspirations.
However, another must-win for Smurfit’s, over relegation-threatened Aer Lingus (3-1), forced an incredible play-off against Roches at Turner’s Cross on Sunday, May 12, a week after the latter defeated Cara Partners 4-1 in the cup final.
With both teams tied on 34 points from 18 matches, ‘referee of the year’, Ger O’Donovan, was appointed to oversee what was sure to be an emotionally charged encounter.
The match burst into life in the 17th minute, when, after a break down the right, Frank McCarthy hit an unstoppable, 20-yard drive past Liam O’Callaghan. Despite Roches’ captain, Denis Kennedy, missing a penalty and having Aidan McSweeney sent off for dissent on the hour, John O’Neill leveled with 20 minutes remaining. Fionán O’Neill slotted home the winner in the 81st minute to bring the curtain down on a memorable first season in the top flight.
Smurfit’s heroes included Wayne Searls, Deccie White, Michael O’Mahony, Paul Foley, Dave Waldock, Frank McCarthy, and brothers Fionán and Eoin O’Neill.