View from the summit so sweet again for St Finbarr’s
After ending a 33-year famine, famous Cork club face Dr Crokes in Munster semi-final
Michael Shields lifts the trophy as St Finbarr’s celebrate victory over Duhallow in the Cork county final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Once, they were GAA royalty. Above them, only sky.
When St Finbarr’s lifted their third All-Ireland club football title in 1987 after a 0-10 to 0-7 victory over Roscommon’s Clann na nGael, it put them second on the national roll of honour.
The only club in the land who could stood above them were local rivals Nemo Rangers. But even that was no biggie because, at the time, the Barrs had eight Cork county titles to their name and Nemo only had seven. Cork was what you set out to win; Munster and the All-Ireland couldn’t have been more of an afterthought.
In the three decades that have passed since, it isn’t just Nemo who have kept adding titles while the Barrs got stuck; everybody has.
We tried but we couldn’t keep it ticking over. We couldn’t keep winning
The numbers of it are a crude enough way to look at life but they are by definition a grand way to keep score. Nemo have 20 Cork titles to their name now, not to mention seven All-Irelands.
St Finbarr’s won their first county championship in 33 years a fortnight ago and nobody gives them a snowball’s chance of extending their Munster campaign beyond tomorrow’s encounter with Dr Crokes in Killarney.
But when they were the kings, just about everybody bowed down to Cork’s finest. The club won five All-Irelands in 12 years in the 1970s and ’80s, three in football, two in hurling. In 1980, they did the only Munster double ever achieved and when you run your finger through the teamsheets, you scroll down through the gods.
Jimmy Barry-Murphy, Donal O’Grady, Christy Ryan on both teams. Ger Cunningham and Charlie McCarthy playing for the hurlers, John Allen for the footballers. Everybody doubling up to some extent, on the bench, off the bench. The footballers went on to win the All-Ireland, the hurlers were beaten by Ballyhale in the decider.
Later that decade, the conveyor belt was still humming. The 1987 side included John Kerins in goal, John Meyler as full-back and captain, Dave Barry in the forwards. Tony Leahy and Paddy Hayes both went on to play in All-Ireland finals for Cork. For one club to produce such a gush of talent looks borderline indecent at this remove.
“I’d say more or less everybody on those teams would have played for Cork at some level on the way up or at senior,” says Leahy, who went on to manage the Cork U-21s to an All-Ireland in 2007 and has had more Barrs teams through his hands that he could count.
“So you had a special bunch of players that came through at the same time. That was a generation that came at the same time, that evolved together, that developed together. We were very lucky.
“It was one of those situations where you had a huge bunch of very, very talented players at the same time and, as is always the case in every club, those guys are very hard to replace. We tried but we couldn’t keep it ticking over. We couldn’t keep winning. We didn’t have the players, basically.”
Life intervened. Cork city grew and shape-shifted through the decades. The housing mess of the 1980s drained families from Togher and its surrounds, the waters in which the Barrs had always fished for new stock. They went from never having to worry about numbers to relying on careful husbandry to get by. It wasn’t always enough.
“That area of the city started to mature and you saw plenty of fellas moved out with their families,” says Leahy.
“There was a housing crisis in the ’80s, they spread out to the likes of Ballincollig, Carrigaline, Glanmire. Those were the sort of places they had to go to get housing and although some of them brought their kids back to the Barrs even after they moved, a lot didn’t.
“They settled in their new areas and got involved with the local club where they were and as a result, those clubs got bigger and numbers got tighter for us. In recent years, there has been more of that though. More people have brought their kids back into the club even after moving. And that has made a difference.”
It only ever takes a very small shift in camera position for someone to fall out of view, of course. It doesn’t mean they cease to exist. The Barr’s didn’t tumble into a ravine, never to be seen again.
They stayed reasonably competitive – in football more so than in hurling as time went on – but until this year, they had a name as Cork’s most reliable nearly team. Before beating Duhallow two weeks ago, they had lost eight county finals since their last title.
“I wouldn’t say we disappeared,” says Leahy. “But there was a long time there where Nemo got on top and the divisional sides were strong and though we knocked on the door, we never got through it. We would have been there or thereabouts lots of years but never quite made it. We would nearly always have been beaten by champions or finalists.
“I won’t say we got into a rut but there were just years there where we couldn’t make the breakthrough. There were county finals where we should have won, county finals where we had opportunities to score where it would have been harder to miss, other games where we just didn’t get the bit of luck you need.
“And sure then one year becomes the next year and the year after that, and so on. We were always the sort of team that nobody else wanted to meet and if you got over us, that meant you were in with a fairly good shout of winning it out.
“Our timing was always a small bit off. The team we had about 10 years ago when we were beaten in two finals in a row, we had a good handful of very old fellas and a load of young fellas.
“We had three or four fellas all in their late 30s and then maybe 10 or 12 in their early 20s. But when it came to lads between 24 and 30, we just had very few of those. That’s the age group who really push everything on, who are in the best shape physically and mentally to carry the team through and we just didn’t have it.”
The planets having aligned on that score in 2018, they are back. Nobody imagines they will go to Lewis Road tomorrow and take the Crokes on their own patch but neither is anyone too annoyed about it. If this is to be the start of something, it is to be enjoyed. Better that this leaves everyone wanting more next year and all the years to come. They can’t go as long again. They can’t.
It’s very easy for a club to drift. It can slip away very easy
“Whether it be a football or a hurling title, a county championship was something the club needed,” says Leahy, firmly. “We needed this, we really did. Clubs can go along without these championships and the atmosphere around the place can just drift. You need that big lift every now and then.
“It’s very easy for a club to drift. It can slip away very easy. The great teams of the ’80s came from some very successful underage teams in the ’70s. There was a conveyor belt there. But that success slipped away at underage and, without anyone realising it, the senior teams just sort of stagnated. And when the population went down, the calibre of players we had was just a level below what we were used to.
“All you can do is go back and start again at the bottom, go all the way back to underage and put the work in again,. Thankfully, this generation has come through and we have had some very good underage teams in the past few years so hopefully with this success, we can springboard on to better things.”