When the Armagh County Board initially embarked on its |ambitious refurbishment project at the Athletic Grounds it did so in the hope of attracting more high-profile games to the venue and, indeed, to cement the stadium as the nerve centre of the GAA within the county.
Yesterday the county board, the Ulster Colleges Council and the GAA as a whole had considerable cause for celebration when the MacLarnon and MacRory Cup finals were staged against a background of colour, passion, drama and skill that would have done justice to All-Ireland finals day.
There may have been a decided nip in the air but it was hot going, both on and off the field, the frenetic efforts of the players being complemented by the fervour and passion in the stands.
In recent years, the MacRory Cup competition in particular, which is now underwritten by BT, has gained considerably in status, chiefly because of the colossal work undertaken by the Ulster Colleges Council, particularly in the realm of acquiring sponsorship and undertaking a robust marketing strategy.
The slick manner in which yesterday’s contests were organised, the increased media profile which they enjoy and the superbly |produced full-colour match |programme which extended to 94 pages provided further |confirmation that the council, and by extension colleges’ football, are in rude health.
This was further evidenced by the fact that a who’s who of Ulster GAA personnel descended on the Athletic Grounds for what proved to be a memorable occasion.
Present and former county players and high-ranking officials mingled with fresh-faced youngsters in the stands on a day which accentuated the special family flavour which is the real hallmark of the GAA.
Current Armagh team captain Steven McDonnell, former Donegal All-Ireland winner Martin McHugh, ex-Derry senior team boss Paddy Crozier, Peter McGrath, who guided Down to their All-Ireland titles in 1991 and 1994, and UUJ club president John Farrell, who saw his side just lose out to UCC in the Sigerson Cup decider earlier this month, were just some of the luminaries present.
Indeed, the substantial number of neutral followers present testified to the huge interest in colleges’ football and the desire to see what is undoubtedly the next generation of stars flourish in what for them was one of the biggest games of their careers to date.
If clubs are the bedrock of the GAA, then schools provide the supply lines for talent to filter through to those clubs.
And yesterday offered yet more telling evidence that the role of the schools is if anything gaining in significance in underpinning the ongoing welfare of the GAA.
Pupils, bedecked in their schools’ colours, brought a level of pageantry and spectacle to the occasion that is often conspicuous by its absence at many games, even those which enjoy a considerable profile.
The raucous din created by the supporters of St Colman’s College, Newry and St Patrick’s Academy, Dungannon not only helped to create and an electric atmosphere but clearly encouraged the players from both teams to scale |new heights in their pursuit of glory in what was a compelling game laced with flair, panache and adventure.
And the fact that the game itself embodied all that is best in gaelic football at college level enriched the occasion.
It was hardly surprising, though, given the level of intensity which prevailed, that the public address announcer’s plea for followers of the winning teams to refrain from encroaching onto the playing arena fell on deaf ears.
The utter delight which the more youthful followers of St Mary’s CBS exhibited was matched by the euphoria |that greeted St Colman’s |triumph in the thrilling MacRory decider.
But the element of sportsmanship was not forgotten, surely |an encouraging sign in an era when winning at all costs tends to prevail.
While the respective winners were accorded due acclaim, the losers were consoled by friend and foe alike.
No wonder hard-working Ulster Colleges Council secretary Seamus Woods and his fellow officials had cause for considerable satisfaction at the finish. They had seen their efforts to oversee what is now one of the most auspicious occasions on the overall Ulster fixtures calendar bear considerable fruit.
The curtain thus came down on an action-packed season that provided many highlights, not the least of these coming via yesterday’s riveting contest.
Here’s to next year.