Echo 130: Six of the best Cork sports stars who made Rebel county proud

Derek Daly looks at six Leeside legends as we celebrate 130 years of The Echo
Echo 130: Six of the best Cork sports stars who made Rebel county proud

Manchester United legend Roy Keane celebrates a goal by Bryan Robson in 1993. Picture: Shaun Botterill/Allsport/Getty Images

CORK may claim, somewhat jokingly at least, to be the ‘real capital of Ireland’, but they’re completely serious when they say Cork is the sporting capital of Ireland.

Cork has such a rich sporting legacy in hurling, gaelic football, soccer, rugby, boxing, athletics, basketball, racing and loads of other sports. Locally, nationally, globally — Cork has more than made its mark on these sporting landscapes.

The Echo has had the honour and privilege to cover all these sports for the past 130 years. Whether that was every single local hero, caught during their own personal 15 minutes of fame, or some of Cork’s finest sports stars of all time, they were all captured on these pages.

And even those aforementioned leading lights, they may have gone on to make national and global headlines in their chosen sports, but it was on these pages that their journey begun. You would like to think that even Roy Keane would have gotten a little thrill the first time he opened The Echo sports section and saw his name captured in print here.

To single out a handful of these Cork legends, whose careers have been captured in The Echo from embryonic juvenile successes to retirement and beyond, is an impossible one, as it invariably means leaving too many other legends out, but see below anyway, which serves as a quick snapshot into some of the amazing careers that we have had the privilege to cover over the decades.

And the word decades is apt, as for each of these stars, their respective stories lasted decades. Snapshots of their stories might have made it to national and global media, at times, but their entire tales got told right here from beginning to end.

And it is right here that the stories of the next Ring, Keane or Sonia will also be told. As Ring himself put it: “My hurling days are over. Let no-one say the best hurlers belong to the past. They are with us now, and better yet to come.”

We look forward to reporting on those that are yet to come, in the next 130 years, in all sports.

Christy Ring

Ringy was Ireland’s Pele, Ali and Don Bradman rolled into one, and what’s more he was ours.

A Cloyne, Glen Rovers and Leeside legend, every great hurler this island will ever produce will be held up against Ring in order to measure his greatness. Few will come out favourably when compared with the Cork colossus.

He was the greatest hurler in the land when hurling had arguably its greatest golden age, as he played for Cork from 1939 to 1963. He was a key member of the legendary four-in-a-row team from 1941 to 1944, but his legend would just grow and grow, with him ending his career with eight All-Irelands, to go with his nine Munster titles, four league titles, 18 Railway Cups and 14 ‘little All-Irelands’ with the Glen.

Christy Ring leading the way for Glen Rovers against Sarsfields in 1949.
Christy Ring leading the way for Glen Rovers against Sarsfields in 1949.

The bigger the occasion the bigger the Ringy performance. For those of you lucky to have seen him in action, cherish it, as the rest of us can only wish we had. He was taken much too soon from us in 1979, and when it comes to Ring’s lasting legacy it is always best to sign-off with the words his great teammate Jack Lynch uttered at his graveside eulogy.

“As long as the red jerseys of Cork and the blue of Munster and the green, black and gold of Glen Rovers, colours that Christy wore with such distinction, as long as we see these colours in manly combat the memories of Christy’s genius and prowess will come tumbling back with profusion.

“We will relish and savour them for we will hardly see their likes again. And men who are fathers and grandfathers now will tell their children and grandchildren with pride that they saw Christy Ring play. The story will pass from generation to generation and so it will live.”

Roy Keane

The Mayfield midfield maestro may be the ultimate marmite sportsman this country has ever produced, but love him or loathe him, you certainly can’t ignore him.

Johnny Giles, Liam Brady and Paul McGrath may rival Keane for the honour of being Ireland’s greatest ever footballer, but he leaves them all in the halfpenny place in terms of being the most interesting. The controversies, with Saipan being the biggest of these, made him front-page news globally, but it was his exploits on the back pages that secured his legacy as one of Cork’s finest sportsmen of all time.

Roy Keane at World Cup 1994. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Roy Keane at World Cup 1994. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

His journey from Rockmount to Cobh Ramblers to Nottingham Forest to Manchester United has been well documented, and by the time Alex Ferguson paid a then British record of £3.75m for him in 1993 he was the finest midfielder in the Premier League.

He became the ultimate leader in a team of leaders, captaining United from 1997 to 2005, winning 17 major trophies in his time at Old Trafford, as he became a global icon.

He had arrived at the club as the ultimate box to box player, and ended up the perfect deep-lying controlling midfielder, as he completely transformed himself as a player without ever lessening his influence on the team, and if anything becoming more of a presence.

Arguably his finest performance was the one he gave in Turin in the Champions League semi-final in 1999 when scoring the first goal in a thrilling comeback from 2-0 down to inspire United to a 3-2 victory over Juventus.

He was colossal that night, and his performance was even more impressive given that he had picked up a yellow that he knew would keep him out of the final. If anything, this knowledge just drove him to even greater heights, which was the mark of the man.

Sonia O’Sullivan

Sonia O’Sullivan was undoubtedly the greatest runner in Irish athletic history. Her heyday coincided with wonderful coverage of athletics on Irish TV and anyone who lived through this would remember that Sonia was never from Cork, as RTÉ commentator George Hamilton always referred to her as “the Cobh athlete”.

She first entered national consciousness at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona when finishing in an agonising fourth place in the 3000m final, but she was already on the radar of local and athletic fans given her exploits in the singlet of Villanova University in the US.

Sonia won buckets of medals, but her career would be almost defined by the ones she didn’t win, such as the World Championships final of the 3000m final in Stuttgart.

She had established herself as the top middle-distance runner in the world that season, only to come up against three Chinese athletes who literally ran away with the final. All three would be later implicated with being part of a state-sponsored drugs regime.

Irish Olympian and 5,000m silver medallist Sonia O'Sullivan with the Olympic Flame. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE
Irish Olympian and 5,000m silver medallist Sonia O'Sullivan with the Olympic Flame. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE

At the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 there was more disappointment as an upset stomach foiled her double 5000m and 1500m bid, but it is better to focus on the highlights.

World Championship gold and silver in 1995 and 1993 at 5000m and 1500m. Three European golds at 3000, 5000 and 10000m, as well as two silvers. Two World Cross-Country Championship golds, one World Cup gold in 1998, and these are just the highlights.

They are too numerous to mention, in what was a truly glittering career, where she put Ireland, Cork and Cobh firmly on the map.

For many, her greatest moment wasn’t even a gold, as it came when she ensured she wouldn’t end her career without an Olympic medal when finishing second to her old rival Gabriela Szabo at the 3000m final in Sydney in 2000, as a whole nation breathed a sigh of relief for Sonia.

Kieran Joyce

One cannot help but wonder what Kieran Joyce would have achieved if he had, in his prime in the 1980s, had the resources that are available to today’s Irish amateurs in the High-Performance Unit.

Joyce was crowned Cork’s amateur boxer of the last 100 years at the Centenary celebrations of Cork boxing in 2014 and a plaque in honour of his career will forever be located on the iconic Boxing Wall in Bishop Lucey Park.

Joyce didn’t win an Olympic medal, coming up short in Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul in 1988, but that doesn’t detract from a brilliant career, whose high points were a European Elite bronze and six Irish Elite titles.

He secured the first of those six belts at the National Stadium in 1983 and later that year lined out for Ireland at the European Elites in Bulgaria, beating Norwegian and Hungarians en route to securing bronze, but was ultimately beaten on a split decision by the eventual gold medallist, USSR’s Petr Galkin, in the semi-finals.

Cork boxer Kieran Joyce in action for Ireland. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Cork boxer Kieran Joyce in action for Ireland. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland

At the 1984 Olympics in LA, Joyce fought Joni Nyman of Finland in the third round. The Northsider boxed exceptionally well in round one but lost the next two, and Nyman won on a 4-1 split. The Finn would take home a bronze.

At the 1988 Seoul Games he stopped Filipo Vaka of Tonga in his first bout but his Olympic dream ended in the next round when ending up on the wrong side of a controversial 3-2 split decision against Uganda’s Franco Wanyama.

His Olympic dream may have come up short but that didn’t diminish his legendary status on Leeside.

Even in retirement he contributed to the boxing scene in Cork, as following the death of his acclaimed coach Albie Murphy, Joyce put in many years of service as head coach at Sunnyside.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy

He was arguably Cork’s greatest ever dual star, but he was far more than that. He was the essence of cool. He was a rock star who wore a Cork jersey.

He announced himself with a two-goal salvo in the 1973 All-Ireland football final to inspire Cork to victory over Galway. He was barely 19 and was sporting a skinhead haircut. He was ahead of his time.

He would become one of the most iconic hurlers of his generation, known simply as JBM, and would be integral to Cork’s three-in-a-row from 1976 to 1978.

His medal haul was simply frightening. The five hurling and one football All-Irelands he won with Cork may be the standouts, but there were underage All-Irelands too, as well as two club football and two club hurling All-Irelands with the Barrs, and that’s before we mention national leagues, Railway Cups, Munster Championships and Cork County titles in both grades. 

Jimmy Barry-Murphy of Cork in action against Eugene Coughlan and Pat Fleury of Offaly during All-Ireland final at Semple Stadium. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Jimmy Barry-Murphy of Cork in action against Eugene Coughlan and Pat Fleury of Offaly during All-Ireland final at Semple Stadium. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

He would, of course, famously manage Cork to All-Ireland triumph in 1999 too.

JBM loved scoring goals, and his goal against Galway in the 1983 All-Ireland semi-final was probably the greatest goal any player will ever score in the game of hurling. From midfield, John Fenton launched a one-iron-like delivery in the direction of JBM and Galway full-back Conor Hayes in front of the Galway goal.

The ball was moving at great velocity but somehow Barry-Murphy managed to get half a yard in front of Hayes and pulled head-high, somehow connecting to send the sliotar into the top corner.

It had all occurred much too quickly for the TV cameras to pick up, but credit to the great Michael O’Hehir, who instantly announced it as “one of the greatest goals of all time”. It took a genius of a commentator to spot the work of a hurling genius.

Ronan O’Gara

O’Gara was 23 years of age when he missed two kicks in the Heineken Cup Final of 2000 against Northampton at Twickenham, which effectively cost Munster a first European crown. It says all you need to know about his career to know that he basically never missed another kill-or-be-killed kick for the remainder of his career.

If you needed someone to kick a penalty, conversion or drop goal to save your life then ROG was your man. Late penalties to win Heineken Cups, last-ditch drop goals to clinch Grand Slams, clutch conversions to win miracle matches, he did them all.

Munster's Ronan O'Gara celebrates with Heineken Cup in 2006 after beating Biarritz. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE
Munster's Ronan O'Gara celebrates with Heineken Cup in 2006 after beating Biarritz. Picture: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE

He won 128 Ireland caps from 2000 to 2013, and is still is over 100 points ahead of Jonathan Sexton as Ireland’s top points scorer of all time, with 1083 points. He kicked the drop goal against Wales that won the 2009 Grand Slam, while also winning four Triple Crowns, and he was chosen to tour all of the three southern hemisphere giants as a Lions Tourist in 2001, 2005 and 2009, and was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2018.

But it was in the red of Munster where he was at his greatest, as he manoeuvred Munster’s gnarly pack around the rugby citadels of Europe from 1997 to 2013, being the general in chief in Munster’s quest for the Holy Grail from 2000 until he inspired them to victory over Biarritz in Cardiff in 2006, and repeated the trick two years later in the final against Toulouse.

He is now making his name as one of world rugby’s great coaches, with him recently inspiring La Rochelle to an historic victory over Leinster in this year’s Heineken Champions Cup Final. It will certainly be interesting to watch how his coaching career progresses in the coming years.

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