McManus recalls fond memories of steep learning curve at UCD
UCD welcomes the Sigerson Cup weekend to Belfield today and the current crop of players are hoping to give it an extended stay for the first time in 15 years.
Offaly veteran Ciaran McManus was on the last team, from the competition's most successful university, to capture the trophy in Limerick in 1996 -- and ranks the medal on par with his Leinster and National League titles.
The Tubber clubman twice went close to reclaiming Sigerson glory, and although he did win a Dublin senior championship medal with the university, he would never revisit the heights of '96. A callow 19-year-old who hadn't played for the county minors the previous year, McManus was a Sigerson success story. He scored a goal in the semi-final win and was man of the match in the final as his side battled back to beat the Garda in Limerick.
It propelled McManus on to the inter-county scene and he won a Leinster medal a year later -- but Sigerson glory was denied to him later in the decade, most notably when the midfielder lost a boot at one stage as Queen's battled to a dramatic extra-time win in 2000 -- and a year later Jordanstown beat the blues in the final.
"It's a great competition and I was gutted the years we lost," McManus reflected.
"We lost two finals and I can recall how the last 10 minutes of those matches were lost still. This competition gives you a chance to win an All-Ireland title that you may never get again. It does stir up memories and it's great to see the buzz is still around it.
"I met people from Cavan and Offaly from the 1950s and 1960s and they still have the memories and that shows you what it means, how much history and pride are before it. It's a prestigious medal.
"Without a doubt it's up there with my Leinster medal and National League win. That weekend was unbelievable."
The current generation of UCD players were heading off to primary school when McManus was fielding high balls for the likes of Trevor Giles and Co in the forward line in '96. Since then, the Sigerson power base has shifted, with DCU taking the southside college's template and tweaking it to their own benefits. And McManus reckons the competition is harder to win now.
"The whole game has stepped up," he said. "DCU and the other colleges have boosted the profile of the competition. Everyone wants to play and the scholarship programmes have encouraged fellas. There are GAA courses in the likes of Carlow and that's great."
Introduced by Dr Tony O'Neill in the 1979, UCD pioneered the sports scholarship scheme that has been replicated all over Ireland and McManus believes other institutions have brought the system on a notch.
"The UCD scholarship scheme was the benchmark, but other universities have taken it a bit further," he said. "DCU with their academy have taken it to another level. UCD have been trying to match that. It's just a bit of luck with who comes into the college.
"The profile of other colleges has given players an opportunity across the board, while 10 or 15 years ago the bigger colleges had their pick."