Dick Clerkin: Special Sigerson experience must be protected as GAA address ongoing fixtures issues
Back in 2004, Queen's University, my alma mater, were beaten in the Sigerson Cup final by a star-studded Sligo IT team. On the pitch afterwards I shed a tear on the shoulder of manager James McCartan, as my quest for a milestone medal came to a disappointing end.
In what was the final year of my engineering degree, I knew I wouldn't contest the Sigerson again in a Queen's jersey. Watching Saturday's gripping contest between another two of the Sigerson 'old guard', UCD and NUIG, I got a tinge of nostalgia as I recalled that memorable period in my playing career.
The Sigerson experience is a special one. For many it will be the one time they can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best and brightest young talent in the country. Uninhibited by geography or place of birth, players from lower ranked counties share a dressing room as equals with All-Ireland winners and All Stars.
To this day, one of my proudest GAA memories is taking the field in a Sigerson game with the late Cormac McAnallen. Losing in the first round to a Stephen O'Neill inspired St Mary's, in what was Cormac's final year, it would be the last time I would ever play alongside him. It goes without saying that his impression endured much longer than the short time our careers overlapped.
On a weekend that saw a clash on many fronts, with club, college and county all converging, the scheduling of the competition has been thrust into the spotlight.
Over the past number of weeks, as is the case every year, many of the country's best young players are forced to balance their commitments between the overlapping schedules.
For some these recent events will be held up as further examples of the apparent omnishambles that the GAA fixtures calendar has become.
In what should otherwise have been a relatively quiet weekend, NUIG's Kieran Molloy is a poster boy for this scheduling issue.
Molloy, minutes after helping Corofin defeat Moorefield in the All-Ireland club semi-final, hightailed it up the M6 from Tullamore to Dublin, via Garda escort, to come on as a second-half substitute for NUIG.
Suggestions that the Sigerson should be displaced from its traditional February placing will again get a hearing. There is a significant fly in this particular ointment, however.
An obviously critical element to the scheduling of the competition, is the sitting of exams by its participants.
In the south these are typically during December, while in the North exams are typically in January.
Thus February is the only time of year this competition can be practically played. November should become a time for players to rest and recover after long seasons, so displacing it to a pre-December slot would be largely counterproductive.
Hard cases make bad law, so Kieran Molloy's unwavering commitment to both his club and college shouldn't be seen as just cause to tear up a hundred years of Sigerson tradition.
With the winds of change blowing a gale across the GAA plains at present, genuine attempts are being made in many corridors to right the innumerable wrongs in our fixtures calendar.
Looking at situation of Kieran Molloy, how anyone can still reasonably stand over the current All-Ireland club schedule beggars belief.
With a tightening of the inter-county season already in place, the next logical step is to quickly move to a calendar year schedule in which all club competitions can be completed.
Avoiding a collision between the Sigerson and the early rounds of the National League is less straightforward.
Nowadays many inter-county players receive financial support and incentives to attend and play with their chosen colleges, thus creating an understandable expectation of commitment between both parties.
On the other hand, inter-county managers want access to their brightest talents for the early rounds of a competition increasing in importance and profile.
Common sense and a duty of care by managers to their players would serve this problem well without any major surgery to the fixtures schedule.
Common sense isn't that common, unfortunately, so players invariably get caught in the middle trying to serve two masters - who very often won't see eye to eye.
If something has to give here, the Sigerson should be given priority.
You are only young once, and the Sigerson playing days are some of the best times in a footballer's career.
A club away from home, lifelong friendships are forged, and memories are made that will last a lifetime.
Tipperary's Liam Casey made his own memories on Saturday by scoring the final two points to clinch victory for UCD.
Liam isn't likely to have the same illustrious career as his UCD team-mate Con O'Callaghan. Regardless, in years to come he will look back with a warm nostalgia on the day he stood as his equal.
If I could go back in time and turn one result around, it would likely be that day in West Belfast.
I have maintained friendships with many of that Queen's team since, and a Sigerson winner's medal would have been a treasured footnote to what was a truly memorable period of my career. It is a relatively short time in anyone's career, and one that is worth protecting.