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Declan Bogue: Sigerson Cup becoming irrelevant

By Declan Bogue

This Friday, St Mary's College take their place in the Sigerson Cup weekend at the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence.

It cannot be overstated how much of an achievement this is for their coach Paddy Tally. Official sources put the student population of St Mary's at 874 - with only 279 males.

Compare that to opponents University College Cork, who have an enrolment close to 19,000.

The secret of St Mary's success lies in the most under-appreciated ingredient of Gaelic games - that small can be indeed, beautiful.

While 'The Ranch' have a number of county footballers and even household names in the likes of Kevin McKernan, Conor Meyler and Cathal McShane, they are backboned by a strong rod of club footballers.

The majority of St Mary's squad have been training together, creating a culture and a bond.

The same could be said for University of Ulster Jordanstown, but only in pre-Christmas when they won the Ryan Cup. For the most part, they did not have access to their star names. This represented a huge difficulty for their manager, Martin McHugh.

Speaking at the launch of the Club Players' Association in early January, McHugh voiced his frustration about how things had changed since he won a Sigerson as Sligo IT manager in 2002.

"It's something you have to put up with when you manage Sigerson, it's not enjoyable," he began.

"It was enjoyable when I was in Sligo. County managers were happy enough to leave their players with you and they knew they would be getting them back as a better player," he said. "That's not happening now. The counties want the players training.

"We cannot have collective training. We had a bit of work over Christmas, training the players who are not on the county panels at any level. I feel that it helped Ryan (McHugh), it improved Ryan's game last year to go up to Jordanstown and play against players from other counties and I feel it would help them other players as well."

It might also help them as people, to mix from people all over the place rather than remaining inside the county bubble. Last Wednesday should have been an astonishing game of football and a great day for the Sigerson Cup.

Jordanstown had Ronan McNamee, Ryan and Eoin McHugh, Gareth McKinless, Niall McKeever, Ethan Rafferty, Paddy McBrearty, Ryan McAnespie, Mark Bradley among others. Ulster captain Eoin Donnelly was also in the mix but for a failed late fitness test.

They were at home to defending champions UCD, who were bringing Dublin stars Mick Fitzsimons and Paul Mannion, along with 2015 Footballer of the Year Jack McCaffrey and rising stars Jack Barry (Kerry) and Conor McCarthy (Monaghan).

Hosted on campus, at the traditional student downtime of a Wednesday afternoon, I was expecting the sidelines to be five-deep.

How wrong can a man be?

150 there tops. No excited groups of students that might resemble a fan base and once UCD got a run on UUJ, a fightback never materialised. Players went into 'minding themselves' mode with National League games a few days later.

It wasn't always like this. When Ulster football was in its pomp in the noughties, players from Armagh and Tyrone would detail training sessions and life lessons learned from the likes of Dessie Ryan, Adrian McGuckin and Peter Finn, the rather mysterious figure who led the famous 'smash and grab' Sigerson triumph of The Ranch in 1989.

Those coaches were able to mould players as footballers and shape them as young adults. Malachy O'Rourke, Benny Tierney, Pascal Canavan and Jarlath Burns came out of that Ranch team. Half the Tyrone and Armagh teams of 2002/2003 played under Dessie Ryan.

Indeed, there would be many that would credit the Ulster football 'style' of the noughties to what was being tried out on the pitches of the Dub and out the Shore Road.

But nowadays, Sigerson football is not much more popular than fly-fishing; they are mainly participation sports. While players are in college, we don't doubt for a second that they care about the team. But nobody roots for the old college once they leave, like the sporting culture in America. We have clubs for that life-long devotion.

The GAA will always be keen on Sigerson football and it's not hard to see why. If Gaelic games were not part of the extra-curricular activities, then players and potential administrators could easily be lost to other sports.

But with the rise in importance of the National Leagues, with counties expecting greater preparation than ever from their under-21 teams, Sigerson finds itself being wrapped up in a Boa constrictor.

There is no chance of it disappearing off an already-stacked GAA calendar. But with this weekend's competition being hosted in relative obscurity outside Knock, it will be played out unloved, unwatched and irrelevant.

Belfast Telegraph

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