Perfect Night for football!

Up the ‘Dyke – Plunkett Carter

Cork people, it is said, had a peculiar tendency to walk in a westward direction, a fact borne out by the popularity of the Mardyke’s huge range of sporting amenities.  Nothing enhances the intrinsic value of an undertaking as much as the presence of scenic beauty and assuredly it will be unreservedly admitted that nature has taken pains to be more than ordinarily lavish in bestowing her favours on the Mardyke venue. It has no equal in terms of sports facilities, it’s an area that embraces and encompasses so much of the romance and history of sport in Cork.

GAA, soccer, rugby, swimming, athletics, basketball, hockey, cricket, in fact what ever takes your fancy, you’ll find it along the golden mile from the Cricket Grounds to the Victoria Cross. Boyhood memories come flashing back as frequent visits to the playground of Cork are recalled.

It was probably as a soccer pitch that the Mardyke became part of Cork folklore and, though not the registered ground of Fordson’s, it was they who christened the ground as a Freestate League venue when in March 1924 they defeated St James’ Gate 4-0 in the semi-final of the Free State Cup. Shamrock Rovers, the ‘Dykes all- time favourite visitors, had the honour of playing the first FLI match at the venue when they defeated Fordson’s in 1925; the game being transferred when the home sides ground at Ballinlough was deemed incapable of accommodating the expected huge crowd. International soccer came to Cork for the first time when Hungary visited the Mardyke in 1939 and 16,000 fans created a unique atmosphere at the famous ground. Many gained free admission by crossing the river on boats, dozens  craned their necks to view the action from nearby Wellington Bridge and hundreds of “early birds” avoided paying by peeping through the perimeter fencing.  Cork’s iconic buckshee “Jewmans Stand” on the heights of Shanakiel which overlooked the pitch, albeit from a distance, housed a capacity attendance which included  the cream of the venues wittiest characters. These free to view vantage points were always a cause of concern for cash strapped clubs.

The festive atmosphere on Mardyke Walk for the Hungary match, with balladeers, street musicians, three card tricksters and hawkers touting for attention, was replicated for all the big attractions. Centre stage was taken by our own home grown stars with the likes of Tommy Moroney, Liam O’Neill, Owen Madden, Fox Foley, Big and Small Seanie McCarthys, Johnny McGowan, Florry Burke, the Noonans, Paddy O’Leary, John Coughlan, Donie Wallace all worth the “tanner” admission alone. Lovable imports like Jimmy Delaney and Charlie Tully were added attractions as were the many British rogues who failed miserably to live up to advance publicity but still gave the ‘Dyke’s notorious critics belly aches with their attempts to impersonate footballers.

 

End of season testimonial games afforded soccer lovers the opportunity  of witnessing in the flesh world renowned cross channel stars such as Stanley Matthews, Tommy Taylor, Tommy Lawton, Peter Doherty, Dixie Dean, Wilf Mannion, Raich Carter, Johnny Carey, Jackie Rowley, John Charles, Liam Whelan and many more illustrious exponents who marvelled at the ground’s unique atmosphere.  For this writer the appearance of John Charles for Leeds Utd remains indelibly in the memory. John Charles, CBE, was a Welsh international who played for Leeds and Juventus.  Rated by many as the greatest all-round footballer ever to come from Britain, he was equally adept at centre forward  or centre half. Due to his height, physique, and strength, he excelled in the air, although he was also a prolific goalscorer with his feet, due to his powerful and accurate shot. He was never cautioned or sent off during his entire career due to his philosophy of never kicking or intentionally hurting opposing players. Standing at 6 feet 2 inches, he was nicknamed Il Gigante Buono – The Gentle Giant. He was in his prime when he played up the ‘Dyke. The magical moment arrived when Leeds were awarded a penalty at the Mardyke Walk end. Every kid in the ground, most inside the picket fencing, ran to congregate behind the goal and waited anxiously for his typical net bulging thunderbolt drive. Stand- in goalie balding hero Dave Noonan crouched on the goal line. Charles unleashed a mighty shot, straight down the middle; keepers in those days  didn’t move before the kick was taken so Dave stood up and saved miraculously when the cannon ball shot hit him on the forehead. The kids behind the goal went wild and encroached to congratulate Dave who was wobbling on his feet. The old smelling salts did the trick and brave Dave Noonan  lived to embrace King John when the final whistle sounded.

The Mardyke was  the home ground of Cork FC, Cork City, Cork Utd, Cork Ath and Cork Hibs. It was a lucky venue for Cork Utd, arguably the best League of Ireland team of all time, who in their brief eight year reign (1940-’48) won five League Chamionships and two FAI Cups. When Hibs moved to Flower Lodge in 1962 the Mardyke became history; it was used for the last time by the FLI in May 1962 when Cork Celtic beat St Pat’s in the Top Four semi-final.  Thirty four years later in January 1996 major soccer made a welcome return to the ‘Dyke and this time it was the College  team itself  which  made history by becoming the first to represent the University in the FAI Senior Cup when they hosted Limerick in round 1.

A lot of water has flown under Wellington Bridge since that auspicious occasion  and today, 19 years later, high flying Munster Senior League and Collingwood champion s UCC  throw down the gauntlet at the Mardyke to old rivals Cobh Ramblers in the EA Cup second round. The 25th Anniversary of UCC soccer Club in 1978 was marked by the publication of a history booklet, ‘At least we won the toss’ –  a title apt at the time but now absolutely inappropriate as in the intervening years the progressive UCC AFC have won the Blue Riband of Inter Varsity Soccer, the Collingwood Cup, 12 times since 1973. Champions of the Munster Senior League bestows  the entitlement to compete against Airtricity League teams in the EA Cup  so, if progress continues, tonight’s game against Ramblers could be the first of many for the students at the hallowed Mardyke, the spiritual home of Cork soccer.

Where I sported and play’d

‘neath each green leafy shade

On the banks of my own lovely Lee.