The greatest FAI Cup fixture of all time. 40 years on

April 2023 marks 40 years since the incredible four game FAI Cup Semi-Final tie between Cobh Ramblers and Sligo Rovers. Over 50,000 supporters attended the four fixtures, two each in Cork and Sligo. The epic saga captured the nation and rightfully put Cobh Ramblers, then a Munster Senior League side, on the Irish football map. As time moves on the fixture remains etched in the history of our storied club. It was a magical few weeks for both the town and the club is still fondly remembered four decades later.

The Rams had already defeated league opposition Dundalk and Finn Harps prior to the tie and League of Ireland stalwarts Sligo would not be underestimating the Island club as they looked for a first ever FAI Cup title.

The pair first met on Sunday April 3rd in Flower Lodge, now Páirc Uí Rinn, before a crowd of 12,000 that garnered £29,000 in gate receipts. An Eddie O’Halloran penalty gave Ramblers an early lead following a Martin McDonnell handball inside the area. Cobh were utterly dominant and oozed class against their professional counterparts. Cruel heartbreak struck three minutes from time however as substitute Mick Graham headed home a Sligo equaliser, to the distraught of the majority in attendance.

The replay was set for the following Wednesday, a tie that would yield £11,600 in gate receipts, which was highly impressive for a midweek fixture. Goals from Harry McLoughlin and Mick Graham once more had Sligo 2-0 to the good heading into the final twenty minutes. Yet Ramblers had other ideas and Paul Crowley set the comeback in motion with a free-kick from 20 yards on 73 minutes. Ten minutes later it was 2-2, substitute Mick Flynn prodding home from close range to force a second replay between the two sides.

The tie had well and truly gripped the nation at this stage and 22,000 turned out in Flower Lodge for part three of this magical encounter. While this tie lacked the goals of the previous meetings, the 0-0 stalemate was an enthralling cup tie, Paul O’Neill going closest for Cobh late on.

Ramblers were Sligo-bound once more for the fourth clash of the sides. At the time the Sligo Champion wrote that such a game was, “one of the best matches ever played at the Showgrounds.”

The Rams got off to a perfect start thanks to two goals from Frank O’Neill on 1 and 39 minutes. Leading 2-0 at the break one could be forgiven for planning the trip to the final. Sligo centre back Chris Rutherford levelled the tie through two headers of his own early in the second half on 48 and 64 minutes. Locked at 2-2, extra-time was required once again and it was in this period that the tie was finally settled. Rovers replacement Gus Gilligan, returning after a lengthy injury, got on the end of a Harry McLoughlin cross to beat Paul Keating in the Cobh net and break Ramblers hearts.

2,000 away supporters travelled from Cobh and Cork for the game, many making such a trip for the second time in as many weeks. And doing so well before the advent of Irish motorways. It was the cruelest of finishes to a cup tie that had brought national attention to the Great Island club. Over 50,000 spectators attended over the four fixtures and total gate receipts exceeded £90,000.

The Sligo-Cobh battle was a once in a lifetime event and no fixture remains as talked about in the club’s history as those matches in April 1983. The proceeds earned on the famous run also enabled the club to purchase a new training ground in Ballyleary.

“1983 Squad Profiles”

Paul Keating: First season with the club. Ex Springfield goalie who is showing great promise. Great reflexes and very brave. Age 18.

Liam Naughton: “Noddy” has now established himself after a few seasons with the Juniors. Attack conscious and will have a vital role today. Age 25.

George Wilshaw: Very experienced defender who has been involved in all recent successes. Very accurate from set-pieces. Regular full-back for MSL team. ‘Player of the Year’ 1979. Age 28.

Paddy Shortt: Third season with the club, having played with Cork Celtic, Limerick and Waterford. Vastly experienced and should prove a big thorn today. Age 33.

Eddie O’Halloran: Confident and commanding ‘stopper’. Back in our side after a season with Cork United. Ex Springfield and Cork Youths, very dangerous at corner kicks. One of the fittest players in the squad. Age 21.

George Mellerick: Inspiring captain who has won all the honours with Ramblers. Captain of MSL team and also had a spell with Cork Celtic. ‘Player of the Year’ 1980. Age 31.

Paul Crowley: Signed this season from Cork United. Paul has become a regular goalscorer with the club. Great skill and very lively. Should be a big asset today. Age 24.

Paul O’Neill: Very skilful midfielder who has also shared in all our recent successes. Ex Springfield. Paul will be expected to score one of his ‘specials’ today. Brother of Frank. Age 25.

Frank O’Neill. Springfield oldie and ex Cork Celtic striker. Leading scorer since 1975. LOI medal in 1974 and shared in all with Ramblers. 1982 Player of the Year.

Mick O’Flynn: Ramblers stalwart who spent over ten years at the club. Scored the crucial equaliser in the second Sligo tie to force yet another replay.

Mick O’Leary: Strong midfielder now in his third season. Ex UCC and Crofton. Has slotted in like a ‘local’ and nobody likes training better. Age 27.

Fergus McDaid. Donegal born ex Cork Celtic striker. Regular scorer in all his four seasons with us. Very versatile and difficult to keep tabs on. ‘Player of the Year’ 1981. Age 27.

Peter Piggott: Another youngster to make the breakthrough from Springfield. Very skilful and showing great promise. Age 19.

Tim Stack: Loyal and tough midfielder who has also won the lot with Ramblers. Ex Springfield. Age 25.

Jim Kelly: Another ex Springfield man who has returned after being out of the game for a couple of years. Tenacious tackler fighting for a place today. Age 25.

John O’Sullivan: ‘Sully’ has been one of the great goalkeepers produced by Ramblers. Has won all the honours. Ex manager and still remarkably fit. Age 34.

Conor McCarthy: Strong and forceful. Unfortunately a fractured leg has cost Conor his place today. He has just established himself but his day will come. Age 20.

In another bonus, defender Eddie O’Halloran was named SWAI Player of the Month for March 1983, a first ever recipient from a non-league club. While the decision to enter the club into the League of Ireland ranks in 1985 was not wholly based on this gallant FAI cup run, it is safe to say that it definitely aided those in favour of such a move. The club’s dominance of the Munster Senior League over the previous decade, combined with its ability to compete with, and defeat, League opposition meant that joining the national ranks was a step worth taking.

To mark this occasion, the club are hosting a ‘Remembering 83’ night in the clubhouse on Thursday May 4th, featuring RTE footage of the supporters around Cobh and the first of the four games. Tickets are limited in numbers and are now on sale for €5 – klubfunder.com/Clubs/Cobh_Ramblers_FC/Events/2269372

By Thomas Stafford

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