Longread: Home games at the Cross and a famous night in Athlone - the story behind the Cobh Ramblers 2007 First Division title win

Fri, Jul 03 2020

There have been several remarkable promotion stories since the inception of the League of Ireland First Division in 1985, but the Cobh Ramblers story of 2007 is up there with the best of them.

Ramblers’ success in 2007 was not a surprise but was the culmination of years of hard work and foundations that had been carefully put in place.

Stephen Henderson took charge of the club at the tail-end of the 2004 campaign. Upon arriving at St. Colman’s Park, the Dubliner took over the reins from previous manager Dave Hill.

During the ’04 season, Cobh had struggled to gather any sort of real consistency, and in September they turned to Henderson who was then Cork City goalkeeping coach.

From that point the Rams went on a journey into the unknown as Hendo began to put his own stamp on things at St. Colman’s Park.

Bringing in the right characters, experiencing near-misses and eventually scaling the summit, the Cobh journey was a triumph of will and belief, and this is their story.

Cobh’s entry into the League of Ireland

Cobh Ramblers joined the League of Ireland in 1985 after one of the most remarkable spells in the club’s history.

In 1983, the club from the Great Island reached the FAI Cup semi-final – only to fall short against Sligo Rovers after three replays.

However, after joining the league in the inaugural season for the First Division, the Rams found it difficult to assert themselves as one of the League of Ireland’s top sides – spending just four of their years in existence as a National League side in the top flight.

They experienced promotion twice prior to 2007 – in 1989 and 1993 – only once staying in the top-flight for more than a season.

After their second stint in the top-flight came to an end, Cobh really struggled to get back to the heights they scaled during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Ten consecutive years in the second tier imprinted itself on the club who were in desperate need of a catapult back into the hearts and minds of the Cork footballing public.

The early Stephen Henderson years

When Stephen Henderson took his place in the Cobh Ramblers dugout in September 2004 his first assignment as manager was an away trip to Ballybofey and the Rams suffered a 1-0 defeat to Finn Harps.

But his first assignment was never about the result, nor should it have been. And just like that the process had just begun.

“I was nearly part of furniture at Cobh I’d say as I was there so long,” Cobh stalwart Kieran O’Reilly tells extratime.ie. “The way the club was before Hendo came – it was old-school for a better word of it. A lot of things changed when he came in.

“I remember his very first day. He came in and had a meeting with us and we all knew from that moment on that things were going to change.

“It was going to get very professional and it was going to go to another level. Even though Hendo was coming in from the background at other clubs, he wanted to put his own stamp on things and I knew it was going to be a journey – it was going to be tough but it was going to be enjoyable.”

Looking back at his arrival at Cobh Henderson recalls that when he came in Cobh “were second last in the table and were struggling.

“I spoke to the board and I went in to finish out the end of the 2004 season to see how things would go really and it went very well.

“From there, we had an assessment of the players we had, and we thought if we apply ourselves, there was some really good young players in Cork that could help us to become competitive again.

“That’s what it was, just for us to become competitive again because we were getting hammered every week really.

“We looked at the Cobh underage set-up where there were some good young players and then we eventually got a squad together that was more than competitive.

“My time with Cork meant that I could get the likes of Kevin Murray, Michael Mulconry and Shane Guthrie to come with me and those three would have been pivotal for us as we moved forward.”

Reinforcements

Before you could blink – there was effectively a brand-new playing squad at Cobh Ramblers under the tutelage of Henderson.

The Dubliner’s playing spells with Cork City in the League of Ireland and Cobh Wanderers in the Munster Senior League bore fruit when it came to putting a competitive playing squad together at St. Colman’s Park.   

“I would’ve always had an ambition of playing with Cobh Ramblers because it’s what a lot of young lads have on their minds in Cobh, it’s a big deal,” Davin O’Neill admits.

O’Neill – whose father and uncle played for Cobh during their golden 1980s era – joined the club from Cobh Wanderers. 

“My (arrival) was down to Stephen Henderson. At the time I wasn’t playing much football, I was with Cobh Wanderers in the Munster Senior League under a Ramblers legend George Melrick and that’s how I first came across Stephen Henderson.

“He had retired from league football and played with Wanderers shortly after. He would’ve been on the team when I joined as an 18-year-old.”  

Central defender Kevin Murray – who would later go on to play a pivotal role in 2007 – added:  “I was 22 or 23 at the time when I met with Stephen Henderson and Martin Cambridge at the Old Ibis Hotel in Glanmire.”

Murray joined the Rams from Leeside rivals Cork City. “I would’ve known Hendo when he came to speak to me about joining Cobh.

“I would’ve assumed Hendo would have seen a lot of me in the Cork City under-21s because I didn’t play too much first-team football with Cork before I left the first time there.”

For Graham Cummins, his ascent to the first-team was different to most. “I came from Tramore to join the under-18s at Cobh.

“I wasn’t even playing with the 21s (at Cobh) and at one stage I wasn’t playing with the 18s (before joining the first-team).

“I think Hendo saw the potential in me then and he kind of stepped in for me saying that I should have been at least playing with the under-18s. He tells me that it was during an 18s game when he made his mind up on me.”

O’Reilly – who watched on in awe of his new boss – reflects: “Stephen was very clever in how he went about his business.

“What I always thought was so impressive about Hendo was the characters he brought in. He brought in the right players for the right position for the right environment.

“There were players that came in before to the club that had a lot of technical ability, but they wouldn’t have that the personality for the dressing room at the time. He handpicked his players and it worked an absolute treat.”

A rocky start to 2007

In both 2005 and 2006, Cobh went close to achieving what looked like the impossible. However, the likes of Sligo Rovers, Dublin City and Shamrock Rovers all got the better of Cobh when it came to the crunch.

And while there was a clear process and exciting future starting to shine through in Cobh, their start to the 2007 campaign could not have gone any worse.

They suffered two defeats in their first two games of the season, the first at ‘home’ to Limerick 37 on the opening night and the other a loss against league newcomers Wexford Youths.

Cobh had to play their opening two home games of the season at Turner’s Cross, as their traditional home venue of St. Colman’s Park was being revamped at the time.

“When we lost our first two games – I know it’s easy to say in hindsight now - but it was probably a blessing in disguise in some ways for us, bringing us closer,” Murray explains.

“I remember us losing to Wexford away in the second game of the season. The weather was horrendous, there was gale force winds and we lost 1-0.

“We had an inquisition almost after the game where people said what they had to say and that galvanised us.

“The following week we played at Turner’s Cross and then we went back to Cobh. As the games went by, the confidence increased.”

For O’Neill, it was not the start that he was expecting. “I remember after losing the first two games thinking that we were improving in the last two years and then after that I was thinking was this (promotion) ever going to happen. It was only human to doubt yourself.”

However, following a far from ideal league start, Henderson noted the importance of his sides’ opening win of the season against Finn Harps, something that would prove crucial in the long-run.

A win at the Cross

“(Playing away from St. Colman’s) was surreal for us. We were getting the stand built so our first two home games were at Turner’s Cross,” Henderson notes.

“We lost our first two games, the first against Wexford who literally only started in the league and that didn’t go down too well!

“We ended up struggling against Wexford for the whole of that season, we beat them once. That could’ve done us really, but thankfully it didn’t.

“Limerick beat us in the first game too, but I think the real turning point for us came in the game against Finn Harps at Turner’s Cross.”

Cobh welcomed Finn Harps to the Cross in what was Cobh’s last ‘home’ game at the venue before returning to their spiritual home at St Colman’s Park.

A 1-0 win for the Rams followed, with Gareth Cambridge netting a 36th minute winner for his side. The result catapulted Cobh right back into the mix after a far from ideal start.

And it is not only Henderson who realises the importance of their opening win over the Co. Donegal side. “I now look back on that think how vital that was because we ended up pipping Harps to the league,” Cummins said.  

“Once we got that win, we just went unbeaten, but it was never a case of just trying to stay unbeaten.”  

O’Reilly added: “Despite the poor start, you could always tell that it was going to end on a high after all of the work that was being put in.”

The Run

The win over Harps proved to be the catalyst for arguably one of the greatest unbeaten runs in First Division history.

42 goals scored, 10 conceded and crucially 27 games unbeaten – before they knew it, Cobh went from being at risk of falling apart to going neck and neck with Harps for the First Division title.  

“Football is a confidence game and when you’re winning there’s a great camaraderie in the team,” said Cobh native O’Neill.

“It builds and builds and naturally teams just get stronger and that’s what we did. We clicked that year; we slowly built that squad up very intelligently and signed players that we needed.

“After the first two games, we leaned on the resilience that we built up during the last two years. I don’t think we felt that we couldn’t beat anybody in that league, showing that winning mentality we had.”

Now 36-year-old Murray added: “As we went on in the run, I wouldn’t call it arrogance, but there was an air of confidence about us.

“The training pitch was incredible. We were having five a side’s in training that were absolutely incredible.  

“We had a great bond, but if anyone was watching those five-a-sides, you’d swear we hated each other with the intensity of them. We got that bit between our teeth and we brought that into matches.”

Now Waterford defender and two-time First Division winner Cummins said: “We never really felt any pressure until the very end when we thought there’s a league title there to be won.

“Hendo always gave us the belief to think there was a league there to be won but for me it was just the case of going out and enjoying it.

“When I see young lads coming in, it’s not the same anymore. It’s more pressurised about performing every week and I don’t think crowds give young fellas the chance like before.”

Finn Harps

As the run went on and on, a constant remained – Finn Harps were not giving up in their relentless chase of the First Division title.

And their chase went all the way to the wire: “It wasn’t an easy division at all that year. Dundalk were there as well and they were strong too, Limerick also,” O’Neill admits.

“We weren’t arrogant, but we were confident in our own ability and the talent that we had in our squad as we knew on our day, we knew we could beat anybody.

“(Harps) had a great team with great experience. They had fellas on their team that you wouldn’t see nowadays in the First Division.

“They were really tough opponents, but we had prepared for that in 2005 and 2006 also.”

With both sides looking like they were close to going up, it became evident that the two sides’ September clash in Ballybofey may prove pivotal.

Following a run that never looked like it was going to end – it eventually did, and it was a strike from Harps’ Conor Gethins that halted the Rams in their tracks.

The setback

“When I do look back on it when we did lose that night up in Harps, that goal is so vivid to me,” Cummins said.  

“We were hanging in there to be fair; Harps were battering us, and the crowd was huge up in Ballybofey that night. It was one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever played in front of.

“I remember Conor Gethins smashing one in from the edge of the box. I was a forward and I was in our own box defending.

“When that goal went in, I thought that was it and the league was gone even though there were still six games to go.

“When I think of the start it’s crazy to think that we only lost three games that year and we still might not have won the league.”

Murray adds: “We had a 27-game unbeaten run and we were still relying on Finn Harps to slip up towards the end of the season!

“Any other season you would like to think that with a 27-game unbeaten run where the majority of results were wins would be enough to set the run-in up as a celebration, but it wasn’t to be.

“We had some battles with them (Finn Harps) I have to say. They had some excellent players and some really tough lads to play against. We knew of them very well and we had a great mutual respect.

“It was practically out of our hands at that point we thought. It’s such a hard place to go to and the crowd were really up for that game.

“Being on the end of that, we were just deflated because we won so many games and we were still behind Finn Harps.

“We really just sat back after that and took a look at the whole thing and we asked ourselves would we get another chance at the thing.”

Bouncing back

Despite the 27-game unbeaten run, there is a very plausible argument that the run at the end of the season that yielded six wins on the bounce was more impressive.

“That was a real kick in the teeth for us, to go on a 26-game unbeaten run and then still be behind Harps,” Henderson notes.

“After losing to Harps, I think as brilliant as the unbeaten run was, I always considered the run after we lost to Harps as the more impressive achievement.

“We had to win all of our last six games and because of the added pressure that was on the lads I think that was better.”

Wins over Kildare County, Kilkenny City, Dundalk, and Shelbourne set the tone for the final two weeks that saw the Rams regain control of their league destiny.

But how did Cobh get their title hopes jolted back into life? Step forward Athlone Town striker Colin Fortune.

Harps welcomed Athlone to Finn Park for their final home league game of the season – and should they have won; they were all set to be all but confirmed First Division champions.

But fortuitously for Cobh, who would leapfrog the Co. Donegal side on the Sunday following a win over Monaghan United, the Midlanders would provide a favour of significant proportions.

In the 20th minute Harps keeper James Gallagher made a calamitous mistake that allowed Fortune see his limp effort creep over the line – handing Cobh a lifeline in front of the live TV cameras present.

Nerves

John O’Loughlin levelled however during the second half, and all of a sudden Harps were just a goal away from all but confirming their status as 2007 First Division Champions.

“I remember watching that game on the TV and I can remember the last ten minutes of the game being one of the only times I haven’t been able to watch one,” Cummins reflects.

“I had to get out of my house and go for a walk to just pray that my phone wouldn’t go off. I was watching it with my Dad and I just said to him ‘let me know if something happens’.

“I was just thinking if this phone goes off it is going to be heartbreak.” Fortuitously for Cummins and his Cobh teammates it wasn’t to be for Paul Hegarty’s side who could not find that elusive winner.

“When Athlone got the point, the momentum just swung, and the pressure came back on us for the last game against Athlone.”

O’Neill added: “I was in complete shock and jumping around the place when Colin Fortune scored for Athlone.

“It was a shot that the keeper should have saved kind of job but honestly it was like watching the Champions League final for me at the time.

“That’s how important it was and how into it we were. That’s exactly what football makes you do – it was brilliant. That game was the injection that we needed, and we’ll be forever grateful to Colin Fortune!”

Royal Rumbles

After beating Monaghan United on the Sunday following Harps’ slip-up against Athlone, Cobh found themselves in the position of knowing that should they win away in Lissywoolen on the last night of the season, they would be crowned First Division champions.

“From the start to the halfway point of the season we were thinking we were doing ok, but could we win the league? Probably not,” O’Reilly admits. “I had that different mentality where I believed the whole time, but then we got into the second half of the season and then we were getting better and better.

“I always go back to the way we trained. We used to have these five-a-sides and they were like the Royal Rumble in the WWE.

“It was insane, no holds barred – I don’t know how loads didn’t come away from them in a stretcher – it was that intense.

“We brought that intensity right into the games, and it was all down to Hendo. I mention him a lot because he knitted the whole thing together, he picked the players that were there – he was very clever.

“Towards the end of the season in the business end of it we knew that it would take a really good team to beat us.

“Even if we felt we might be having an off day we still had that mentality driven into us that we were going to get a result either way.

“We weren’t going to the 90th minute, we were going to the 100th minute, that’s the way Hendo trained us.”

The never-ending wait

Such was the excitement and glamour that surrounded the game, over 1,000 Cobh fans made the trip up to Athlone to watch their side try to make history.

“We travelled up the day before the game and I remember myself and a few other lads were saying that we just couldn’t sleep,” Cummins reveals.

“The day of the game I remember speaking to Shane Barrett and we were both saying how we couldn’t sleep that night and all we did that day was play FIFA.

“The lads in the room were all just playing PlayStation. We were all nervous, and you hear things like you shouldn’t be playing computer games for too long, but we did.”

Hendo’s Rams went into their pivotal clash lining up in what became their traditional 4-4-2 shape that defined them during most of the season.

James McCarthy started between the sticks and he was protected by the back four of Alan Carey, John Meade, Kevin Murray and Shane Guthrie.

Davin O’Neill, John Kearney, Shane Barrett and Kieran O’Reilly all made up the midfield – with both Graham Cummins and Michael Mulconry leading the line as history awaited Cobh in the Midlands. 

Lissywoolen

“It was probably the worst game I’ve ever played in,” Murray said. “It was just a strange night and we weren’t at our best; we were a bit nervous knowing what was at stake.

“Shane Guthrie almost scored the most ridiculous OG with a back header that hit the crossbar and stuff went on. As the game went you started to think if it was going to be our night at all.”

O’Reilly adds: “The game was going on and on, and it was getting late into the second half. You were just thinking then, ‘Jesus, is this ever going to come’.

“Their centre forward took a strike at one stage and it hit the bar. The ball went over the ‘keeper, it was going in and then the wind caught it and the ball flew over the bar,” he reflects.

With just under 20 minutes to go, and with no sign of a winner on the way for Cobh, step forward Mr Kevin Murray.

“There was a corner that came in from Shane Guthrie – it came across the six-yard box and I think I was there; Kevin Murray was there too.  

“Kevo got his foot to it but we were throwing everything at it. I was throwing my head at it on the ground, I could’ve got a kick in the head – it didn’t matter.

“Any limb was going at that ball and I just remember when the ball went in, there’s a great picture that’s still there of that moment.

“I knew when that ball crossed the line because of our mentality from the training, that camaraderie and that togetherness that there was no way we were going to let anyone else come back into that.”

Murray adds: “When I replay the moment when I scored, I don’t think I even celebrated. I was just so focused on making sure that we won the game and I was telling people to calm down instead of celebrating (laughs).”

Celebrating

Despite the Rams mightily impressive honours list as an amateur outfit – they had never really been able to replicate their junior success in the senior ranks.

And when they finally got their hands on the First Division trophy – a town rejoiced along with a group of players who, prior to 2005, were effective unknowns.

“It was unreal for me, and the celebrations after the game were something else,” Cummins admits.

“Coming back down on the bus, Mucky (James McCarthy) brought down a guitar and everything. We went back to Cobh and all the Cobh fans were outside and it was brilliant.

“We were in the clubhouse until about 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning, I ended up sleeping in a car with James McCarthy in the ground. That was the kind of club it was.

“Hendo’s wife then came down and tapped on the car window telling us the lads were up in their house having breakfast, so we were asked in.

“I think that team and club was just built on a bond where everyone got on well, there were no bad eggs.

“I think it’s very hard to find that again because football has changed so much. Hendo used to encourage us to have a drink after games together and I don’t think that’s really accepted now.”

O’Neill added: “It was great that night in Athlone. My father and uncle were part of the 1983 team that got to the semi-finals of the FAI Cup. I was always attuned to Cobh Ramblers because of that and having my father and my family there that night was really special.  

“It was a really special night for me, wearing that claret and blue jersey as a local lad, there being a thousand Cobh people in the stand singing Que Sera – does it get much better than that for a local lad?”

Reflections

For those who were fortunate enough to help Cobh that season deliver their first ever major trophy as a League of Ireland club, – despite what followed in 2008 – it remains special.

“Cobh are in the league over 40 years now and it was the first time they ever won a league or anything,” Henderson concluded.  “It was their first senior trophy as a senior League of Ireland club.

“Although the Munster Senior Cup wouldn’t be recognised as a huge cup, it’s still a senior cup and I was fortunate enough to be a part of that group as well (in 2005).”

Cummins adds: “It definitely would be up there for me. Obviously, my favourite one was winning the league up in Tolka (with Cork City) because I scored the winner.

“The Cobh one is right up there as well because the celebrations after were so good. They probably went on longer than they did when I won the league with Cork (in 2011).  

“Your first one is always the most special one and it was something that I never expected. I just went into that season looking to enjoy my football, and the older you get you look back and think did I celebrate enough!

“I’d prefer that Cobh league win over winning promotion with Rochdale because it meant a lot more to me.”

For O’Neill, who was steeped in the Cobh Ramblers ilk since he was a child, it was naturally special:  “My dad was delighted when we won the First Division because it took away the attention from that 83 team.

“For 24 years they were being talked about and it was a welcome distraction for them. I’ve spoken to other players on that ‘83 team and they’ve said the same.

“Teams have to move on, and you can’t live off the trophies that you won in a previous century– I think we’re held in high regard in the footballing fraternity in Cobh anyway.”

And for O’Reilly who had been with Henderson since day one, he admits he will never forget the events of 2007: “I’d still meet up with a lot of the lads from that team at the games. We’d always meet at the ground and to be fair, you’re never forgotten.

“Cobh is not the biggest place in the world, but it certainly has the biggest heart in the world when it comes to football because the people there are brilliant.

“They’ll always come to you and to be fair we’ll always go to them because they followed us long enough so it’s time to come back and mix with them.

“There was a great relationship down there, it was the best years of my footballing life down in Cobh and we’ll all hold our memories dear from that time.”

 

Cobh squad list at the end of the 2007 season

Goalkeepers: James McCarthy, Stephen Deasy, Dave O’Keefe.

Defenders: Alan Carey, Kevin Murray, Shane Guthrie, John Meade, Bryan McCarthy, Martin Deady, Ken Coleman.

Midfielders: John Kearney, Shane Barrett, Alan King, Davin O’Neill, Michael O’Shea, Kieran O’Reilly, Darragh Burke, Sean Daley.

Forwards: Jamie Nolan, Gareth Cambridge, Graham Cummins, Conor Meade, Michael Mulconry.

 

With thanks to Stephen Henderson, Kevin Murray, Graham Cummins, Kieran O’Reilly, Davin O’Neill, Cobh Ramblers FC, Tom O’Connor and Macdara Ferris for their time and help in compiling this article.