Eugene McGee: Sigerson built into the fabric of Association
Published 03/03/2011 | 05:00
Although the Sigerson Cup football competition is celebrating its 100th anniversary this week, making it the second oldest official GAA competition after the All-Ireland championships, there is a section of the GAA community that has divided views on it and its sister competition, the Fitzgibbon Cup.
While those who have been involved as players, officials or fans have the happiest of memories and speak very highly of the role of the Sigerson Cup in overall GAA activity, the majority who have never been involved in third-level GAA are no more than passively interested.
Because Sigerson games do not draw large crowds and rarely get the media exposure attached to even the most insignificant of inter-county competitions, it is inevitable that the charge of 'elitism' is frequently attached to it.
Sigerson football is not inter-county football, nor is it All-Ireland club or local county championship football. The Sigerson operates within small competitive structures for the simple reason that there are less than 50 third-level institutions around Ireland so the games have a limited audience and limited participation levels.
But as regards commitment, motivation, fanatical fervour and attention to progressive training methods, the Sigerson Cup can easily match any other GAA competitions and far outweighs most of them.
Whatever about some other third-level sports, the charge of 'elitism' is absurd in the context of GAA players. For a century, players from all over Ireland, from poor junior to top-class senior clubs, have taken part in Sigerson Cup games side by side as equals.
Indeed, the progress achieved by players from some of the weakest counties in Sigerson football stands as one of the greatest contributions the competition has made.
The high quality of team preparation and the chance to train and play with and against some of the best players in the country has produced numerous quality players from weak counties who later went on to lead by example in their home places.
In my own time as a Sigerson mentor with UCD, I can recall a host of players from then-weak counties such as Tipperary, Wexford, Clare, Waterford, Longford, Sligo and Wicklow who improved greatly as Sigerson players and went on to boost their counties and, in many cases, provide the leadership which inspired those counties to success.
John O'Keeffe from Kerry and Pat O'Neill from Dublin were big stars at county level in the 1970s, but they also played alongside Mick Carty from Wexford, Paddy Browne from Carlow and Mick Hanrahan from Ballinacourty in Waterford to the mutual benefit of all concerned. It was the same in all the other third-level colleges and remains so to this day.
Possibly the best example of the contribution of the Sigerson competition on the national stage came in 1958 when Queens University won for the first time by beating a high-profile UCD team in a replay.
Sean O'Neill of Down was a star on that side along with Derry players Phil Stuart, Leo O'Neill and Peter Smith.
In the same year Derry won their first Ulster title and beat Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. O'Neill went on to inspire Down to their first Ulster title in 1959 and their first All-Ireland against Kerry a year later. No wonder Ulster GAA people place very high regard on the Sigerson Cup competition to this day.
Sigerson football has produced a lot more than just good footballers, as is proven by the number of GAA officers who have come from the third-level ranks. Several GAA presidents have been former Sigerson competitors, such as Donal Keenan, Mick Loftus, Hugh Byrne, Sean Ryan, Seamus Gardiner, Dr Joe Stuart, Joe McDonagh, Peter Quinn and Alf Murrray among others.
Several more have collected the Sam Maguire Cup as captains of their county, such as Sean Flanagan (twice), Seamus O'Malley, Enda Colleran (twice), Donie O'Sullivan, Billy Morgan, Mickey O'Sullivan, Tommy Drumm, Henry Downey, Seamus Moynihan, Kieran McGeeney, Peter Canavan, Dara O Cinneide and Brian Dooher.
Despite the high intensity level of Sigerson games, equally important over the years has been the social aspect of the games, particularly during the first 75 years when the competition was played off on a weekend by rotation between Dublin, Galway, Cork and Belfast. Many lifelong friendships were forged in those times which also served the GAA well subsequently.
At present there are attempts to undermine the Sigerson and other third-level competitions, mainly by county managers, some of whom seem to want total control over their players -- on and off the field.
It was fitting therefore that on Monday last Padraig Duffy spoke out strongly on the importance of Sigerson competition and its role in the GAA. Pat Gilroy is one of several managers who does appreciate that also and is happy to facilitate Dublin players involved.
Sigerson players, with the odd exception, only play with their college teams for two or three years and play about half a dozen games annually, usually away from weekends.
In proportion to this small number of games the influence of the Sigerson Cup since 1911 has been immense and a very important part of the fabric of the GAA. As the quarter-finals of the competition take place in UCD today, all right-thinking people in the Association will be hoping that this continues for another century.