Wednesday 17 July 2019

Colm O'Rourke: 'Old-school values still have a place'

UCC manager Billy Morgan celebrates after the Electric Ireland Sigerson Cup final between St Mary’s Belfast and University College Cork. Photo: Sportsfile
UCC manager Billy Morgan celebrates after the Electric Ireland Sigerson Cup final between St Mary’s Belfast and University College Cork. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

There was an All-Ireland final played last Wednesday night in Portlaoise. It was a very well-kept secret, but a few hundred got to know about it. This was the final of the Sigerson Cup, which used to be one of the most prestigious competitions in the land; now, alas, it is almost like the Railway Cup.

If you were trawling through the GAA website last week you would have done well to find any mention of this final. It is a bit like the website on Sunday evenings - supporters find it almost useless in getting up-to-date scores and reports on games.

Anyway, UCC, with the famous skull and crossbones on their chests, beat St Mary's from Belfast. The skull and crossbones was traditionally used by pirate ships to warn of imminent attack. In UCC, it is seen as a symbol of unity and inclusion and it is certainly so. How often do you see Corkmen and Kerrymen unified under one flag? A few renegades from other counties are also welcomed, including a couple from Meath, James McEntee and Michael Flood.

This final was a bit of a David versus Goliath affair, which Goliath duly won. UCC has over 20,000 students while St Mary's has around 1,000. In the semi-final, they beat UCD, who have over 25,000 students, a small town in other words. So it was a bit like Leitrim taking on Dublin. Mary's, like Leitrim, will always be giving away a big advantage in numbers.

One of the main reasons I wanted to watch this match was to see Seán O'Shea. I knew he could kick frees but a lot is expected of him at senior level for such a young man. He can catch, kick and run, and among players of his own age he was outstanding. I wanted to study his work-rate as I had been told he can be a bit lazy. No such charge could be levelled at him in this game. He ran and tackled and played for his team and ultimately he provided the class which was the difference on the night.

Kerry have the real deal in this young man. Hopefully he will be afforded patience and time to become a brilliant senior. In one sense he is in the wrong county for both those things; long-term planning in Kerry is six months, and O'Shea may not be at this best in the tough world of senior county football for another three or four years. Yet even for this year a forward line which includes O'Shea, David Clifford and Paul Geaney will take a bit of minding.

It was also a great night for Billy Morgan, the manager of UCC. There is a bit of ageism in the GAA at present, a feeling that only younger men understand the changing direction of the game and are able to respond to it. The modern talk of systems and tactics and training methods, and the implication older people could not grasp them, is both insulting and total manure.

Morgan stands out as a man who has played and managed through all the fads and still keeps on winning. I am not quite sure what age he is but it must be 93 or 94 now! He keeps the game simple and much more importantly players respond to him. It was obvious from the celebrations after the match that the players really enjoy him.

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There is no substitute for experience in life and a common trend in Irish society has been forcing people to retire from various jobs when they should be encouraged to stay on for the experience they bring. Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, the most successful manager in American football, is 67 and most US sports have older men involved. In Ireland, they would be shipped off to the breaker's yard.

Morgan's sidekick, Dr Con Murphy, was also on the UCC sideline, another 50 years of help, guidance and free medical care to those lucky students. Dr Con was recently honoured - and deservedly so - in Cork's City Hall for his contribution to Cork GAA and Cork society in general. From those lofty and patrician heights he was back among the plebs on Wednesday night.

Some psychologists should do a study on men like him and Morgan, those who live happier lives and make others much happier too. Surely there should be some role for Billy Morgan in Cork football. He may divide opinion but he would pull a player's head off if he did not wear a Cork jersey with pride and passion. That spirit of resistance and refusing to bend no matter what the odds is badly needed now.

The match itself was a thoroughly modern one which older coaches like Morgan are not supposed to understand. Players were fit, determined and honest. Defence was a priority and Mary's often had everyone back. Players soloed and hand-passed as a first and last priority.

The Mary's policy seemed to be to run forward and pass back. Every free-kick in the first half was kicked back by Mary's and I could not help but think that a rule where all frees went forward would help football as a spectacle. But matches are still won by good forwards, Mary's had Shane McGuigan and UCC had the ace in the pack in O'Shea.

While the Sigerson Cup is the highlight of third level, there are other competitions which take in those of all sizes and abilities. Included among others from abroad were Hope University Liverpool and a New York college team. It shows the strength and appeal of the GAA around the world.

It is an even greater reason to keep on promoting football at third level. It brings a sharing of ideas, builds relationships between players of different counties and countries and promotes a new raft of younger administrators.

That is too big a prize to give up at a time when players and officials are finding the balancing act between league and third level harder to manage. When I played in the Sigerson Cup there was little else on in early spring. Now with the league starting earlier, the players find themselves as the meat in the sandwich with county managers demanding their attendance at training and challenge matches.

Players like Seán O'Shea are dragged every which way and end up playing a lot of competitive matches at this time of year. Some more enlightened managers see the Sigerson Cup as part of student life, an important part of living, one where the educational and social value is more important than just football. Others, both at official and playing level, are increasingly disenchanted by the constant hassle of trying to prepare a third-level side with county players. They are giving up on it and any county man who takes the short-term view and does not play at third level misses out on an important part of his education.

A solution is to play the Sigerson in the pre-Christmas slot which it occupied up to the foot and mouth outbreak in 1967. That necessitated postponement until spring and it has never gone back. Third-level authorities argue that exams now mean an earlier date is impossible.

That underlines one of the problems with modern students, one where exams and education are mixed up. Students are much too serious nowadays. Another solution is that all county players are exempt from league action until their team is out of third-level competition. You can guess how that would go down with managers.

The Sigerson Cup is named after Professor George Sigerson, a great Irishman from Tyrone, who presented the trophy in 1911 and who had the foresight to see the value of competition between the three universities of the time, UCD, UCC and UCG. The Freeman's Journal reported that in the week of the first final students were entertained at the theatre on Tuesday night, a "smokers" on Wednesday night - whatever that was - and a dinner on Thursday night. In Galway the following year the teams were paraded through the city, "a procession was formed, bands in front, followed by three brakes conveying the teams with horsemen at each side, on Sunday a concert, on Monday a splendid dance and on Tuesday a banquet in the Royal Hotel followed by a torchlight procession through the streets".

It is a long way from that to Portlaoise on a Wednesday night in February with little or no promotion. More is the pity. George Sigerson deserves better. Players love third-level competitions. Another good reason for administrators to act to save great championships like this and put proper order on a fixtures calendar for the whole year.

The games itself was well worth seeing but I also got a tour by Peter O'Neill, chairman of Laois County Board, of the fantastic training facilities beside O'Moore Park for all their county teams. They are a credit to Laois.

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