ON Sunday, April 16, 1972, champions Cork Hibernians went into their last league fixture at Flower Lodge two points behind visitors and four-time title winners Waterford.
The stakes could not have been higher for both clubs who were also scheduled to meet the following week for the first time in the FAI Cup Final at Dalymount Park.
Waterford had surrendered the title they held for four out of the last five seasons in 1970-'71 to a Hibernians’ side under the inspirational guidance of player-manager and former Arsenal, Manchester City and Reading full-back Dave Bacuzzi.
Both teams began the next campaign with wins, Hibs defeating Finn Harps 3-0 and Waterford accounting for St Pat’s at Inchicore, 3-1.
By the end of November, the Blues had won eight on the trot but in their next fixture needed a late Johnny Matthews’ equaliser to salvage a point in a 2-2 draw away to Shelbourne to remain unbeaten.
By that stage Hibs had been beaten twice but were only four points adrift in second spot behind their Munster rivals. However, the Leesiders made up ground by beating their rivals 3-1 away in late December along with Finn Harps to maintain the pressure on the leaders as a New Year dawned.
As the season drew to a close Hibs had closed the gap to two points with only Waterford left to play at home. The Blues needed to avoid defeat to be crowned champions while Hibernians know nothing less the win was required to force a play-off for the second year in a row.
An emotionally charged attendance of 25,000 who paid gate receipts of £5,000 packed into the Ballintemple venue to witness the visitors endure a traumatic first-half which put the hosts firmly in the driving seat.
Hibs rocked their opponents with the opening goal inside the first two minutes. Miah Dennehy’s superb cross was thundered past Peter Thomas by the left foot of John Lawson. Even though the assistant referee had flagged for the ball being out of play before Dennehy crossed, referee John Carpenter allowed the goal to stand.
If that wasn’t bad enough for the Blues, link man Jimmy McGeough went off after wrenching an ankle in the 28th minute. Seven minutes later defender Paul Morrissey limped off to leave the Déise down to 10, the numerical disadvantage cruelly exposed by a second from Hibs in the 37th minute.
Jackie Morley handled outside the area for Bacuzzi to shape to take the free-kick but instead left it for Lawson whose shot came back off the upright for Wigginton to lash in the rebound. Hibs went close to increasing their lead before half-time when first, Wigginton beat the off-side trap but shot into the side netting with Tony Marsden unmarked.
Then, Thomas made an incredible double save from Dennehy and Marsden to keep his team in the contest.
A rejuvenated Waterford escaped again In the 74th minute when Dennehy was allowed to go through when clearly off-side but instead of taking the opportunity himself, elected to pass to Wigginton who was then correctly blown up for off-side. Within five minutes Matthews set up former Cork Celtic star Carl Humphries to reduce the deficit and now the contest was on a knife-edge.
After Dave Kirby shaved the far post, Waterford drew level with four minutes left. Morley’s chip was handled by John Herrick for Matthews to convert from the penalty spot.
John O’Neill’s free-kick was headed past Grady by Alfie Hale to bring the curtain down on an epic encounter and leave the Blues to do a lap of honour which Hibs had done before the match.
If the league decider would go down in the annuls of League of Ireland history, the team’s meeting a week later in the cup final would go down in history for the exploits of one man, Corkonian Miah Dennehy.
The former Northvilla and Wolfe Tones’ junior became the first player to score a hat-trick in the blue ribbon showpiece of the football calendar when he netted three unanswered second-half goals in the 65th, 70th and 83rd minutes.
Dennehy had formed a lethal partnership with Dave Wigginton before being transferred to Nottingham Forrest for a bargain £20,000 in February 1973.
But, he will be forever remembered on Leeside for the hat-trick which denied Waterford the double.