- This article first appeared in the Evening Echo on August 2, 2017
Nowadays, the Cork GAA kit, like so many others, features three stripes down the sleeves and on the shorts.
From time to time, one sees the question raised on social media as to why playing strips manufactured by Dublin firm O’Neills feature the trademark which one would normally associated with adidas.
Basically, they earned the right to do this after adidas took them to court in 1980 but it was held that O’Neills had used the motif first in Ireland and therefore could continue to do so. The stripes weren’t overly common on kits in the 1990s, but since the mid-2000s O’Neills have made them pretty much ubiquitous. This summer marks the 40th anniversary of their first appearance in the wider Irish sporting consciousness.
The stripes’ first appearance on a GAA jersey was in 1976 as Cork donned an adidas set for the Munster final replay against Kerry. It was a move made without sanctioning from the board and adidas’s large trefoil logo had to be covered up.
In his autobiography, Rebel, Rebel, legendary former Cork player and manager Billy Morgan mentioned how there was an investigation into the incident by the board but no punishment other than an instruction not to let things happen again.
However, the following summer, 40 years ago, the team again found themselves at odds with the board over gear, with the episode dubbed ‘the three-stripe affair’.
Michael O’Connell, the managing director of Three Stripe International, adidas’s Irish licensees, and his employee Pat Moore made an approach to Dinny Allen early in 1977, and Morgan went to meet them on behalf of the team.
Adidas were offering jerseys, shorts, boots and tracksuits, only asking for a photograph of the team wearing the clothing for promotional purposes. While Morgan said that the jerseys were a non-runner, he had no problem with the rest and he asked the team’s selectors to seek permission from the board.
The GAA rules, then and now, stipulated that on-field clothing had to be of Irish manufacture. Three-Stripe International ticked this box as they made their clothing in Cork, but any form of branding was prohibited and there was a general air of suspicion regarding anything new.
With no word from the board, the team decided to wear the shorts, featuring the three stripes and adidas’s marque, in a tournament game against Mayo in London. Morgan relates how selector Paddy O’Driscoll tried to prevent him giving out the shorts to his team-mates but coach Donie O’Donovan over-ruled him.
Cork’s championship opener saw them play Clare, and the team had agreed to come on to the pitch wearing the adidas tracksuit tops and then pose for a team photograph. The Banner were easily seen off to set up a final meeting with Kerry but, before that, at a training session Morgan was summoned to a meeting of the board executive.
With advice from Dr Con Murphy to keep his head, Morgan kept cool as a board member went on to the attack. “Ye footballers are always the same, always causing trouble, always looking for something,” he was told.
Morgan made the point that most other counties got gear and the meeting ended with Frank Murphy expressing the hope that things could be sorted amicably. There was no further communication, so Morgan and the team assumed all was fine, but on the Wednesday before the Munster final, chairman Donal O’Sullivan informed them that a letter was on the way threatening suspension if the adidas gear was worn.
The team had a kickabout on the Saturday and afterwards, Donie O’Donovan said to go along with the board and wear plain white shorts. “We’ll beat Kerry and then on Tuesday night I’ll lead ye into the board and we’ll give them what’s what. I’ll leave it up to ye but I’ll back ye 100 percent.”
Team captain Jimmy Barry-Murphy backed up that view and so did Morgan but other players felt differently. The debate went back and forth, and it looked as if O’Donovan’s idea would be followed.
As Morgan put it, “Then, lo and behold, who should open up only a selector. ‘As far as I can see, ye are only creeping’ and crawlin’ trying to get free gear.’” That was the trigger for JBM to stand up and say that the three stripes would be worn.
On the train to Killarney, board officials tried to get him to change his mind and when the team reached the hotel they were implored to wear the plain shorts, but they held firm and took to the field in the adidas ones.
While Cork led by six points early on, Kerry rallied and in the end were convincing winners on a scoreline of 3-15 to 0-9. In the week after the game came the decision that the team were to be suspended en masse by the board. Crucially though, they were only suspended from playing football for Cork, meaning Barry-Murphy and Brian Murphy were part of the Cork hurling side which won the All-Ireland. The players weren’t prevented from playing with their clubs either, so the ban was of little material effect.
There were meetings, but no resolution to the impasse. Eventually, the players relented just before the start of the national league in October, signing a letter stating that the adidas gear would be worn.
“We felt we couldn’t win, and we backed down,” Morgan wrote.
I suppose it was in the back of our minds that we had relatively short playing careers. If we had a Dónal Óg Cusack, we might have kept it going. Maybe if we kept at that battle back in 1977, the troubles of the last few years would have been avoided.
We weren’t cut out for GAA politics and probably lacked the confidence of the players of today. There was no union to support us and the players weren’t yet properly organised at a national level.
And, anyway, we just wanted to play football.