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Inter-County Players Should Step Aside to Save Sigerson - Oakleafers Derry GAA Blog
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Here’s an idea that’s taken a prominent role in the popular discourse surrounding the 2018 running of the Sigerson Cup: the competition should be played without inter-county players.

We have now reached the tipping point where that particular idea needs to be brought into action – for the sole purpose of restoring the University tournament to its former glory…

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If any young GAA follower, of a pre-University age, has been following the Sigerson closely in the early part of 2018, they’ll find it hard to believe that the competition was once one of the highlights of the GAA calendar.

In a previous life, the Sigerson was a very unique competition. A random set of footballers that studied together at University would battle it out against other groups of players from totally different Universities for one of the oldest trophies in Gaelic football. It brought a certain camaraderie that separated Sigerson teams from county squads or even club sides.

The best thing about it though, was that eight University teams gathered together in a makeshift field in some corner of the country for a weekend of knockout games in early Spring. That was the real magic of the Sigerson. While three games in three days might seem like a stretch, it mapped to the student paradigm perfectly: unnecessary excess where, anything could – and often did – happen. And by the time the final rolled around on Sunday, everyone was a bit the worse for wear.

Nowadays, things aren’t quite the same (as you’ll have noted from the heavy use of past tense thus far). The 2018 Sigerson Cup is not your father’s Sigerson Cup.

Sigerson squads feeling the pinch

Firstly, University teams barely get a chance to get their squads together throughout the season, due to demands placed on inter-county players who still generally manage to provide the spine of most Sigerson squads.

Driven by a fear of burnout and prolonged injury, county players tend to play bit-parts in the University season. This makes life difficult for coaches and squad players as crystalised by the following quotes from men that are close to the situation…

Former Kerry footballer Tomas Ó Sé speaks of his experience with UCC:

“Trying to train a college team now for Fitzgibbon or Sigerson has to be a nightmare. I was involved with Billy Morgan in UCC last year and the first time we had all of our elite players together last year was on the Sigerson weekend itself. Club and county always took precedence until then. Now I was at every single UCC training session in that time and, without fail, Billy’s first questions to every county player on arrival were ‘Are you ok to train?’”

Former Sligo IT manager Martin McHugh echoes that view. His comments (below) explain why the Sigerson is no longer the enjoyable experience it should be.

“When I was involved way back, county managers liked having the players playing colleges football because they knew they’d be well coached and well drilled and they’d come back better players. That seems to have changed now. It seems that now everybody needs them at every single training session and everything else. I think at the minute, it’s not enjoyable at all. One player said to me: ‘I hate this time of year because you’re being pulled every way. I don’t enjoy it at all’. Some of them are involved with club, county and university.”

Niall Moyna, long-time DCU manager, has experienced frustration also (from last September):

“It’s becoming much more difficult in the last four to five years to get access to players, now it may change this year with the under 21’s going to under 20’s. It’s extremely frustrating, not just for us because I’m sure it’s the same for all third level institutions, it’s becoming extremely difficult. With that in mind, what we’ve done over the last three years is combine the intermediate and the Sigerson squads (during the league campaign). It’s a lot of time and a lot of effort for the first semester.”

The road to irrelevance

It is clear that the unique student bond, synonymous with third-level college football doesn’t exist to the same extent anymore. If young players aren’t enjoying Sigerson football (which is understandable when they come cold into a squad to play games only, and not to train) then it goes some way to explaining why Ireland’s premier University football competition has slipped dangerously close to irrelevance.

By some conspiracy of fate, a number of recent events have served to illustrate the argument:

Another kick to the stomach is that the Sigerson weekend itself no longer even exists. In 2018, the quarter-finals were played simultaneously at different venues on a Tuesday night. In recent years, at least the semi-finals and final games were played on one weekend, but this season the semi-finals will be played on Wednesday night, with the final the following Saturday.

This is only the thin end of the wedge. In a couple of seasons hence we are likely to see even more players take Howard’s stance, or show their face only twice all season like Clifford. And when Sigerson semi-finals are being played in Inniskeen on a Wednesday evening at 7pm, who could blame them?

We are witnessing the erosion of a magnificent institution, that has been forced to placate the demands of inter-county squads and their NFL campaigns (which, in reality, shouldn’t even be played at this time of the year). It lends heavy credence to the belief that inter-county football is King in the GAA calendar and the rest will have to make do with the scraps that remain. Along with club football and underage competitions, the Sigerson Cup is a reluctant participant in a race to the bottom.

And the Croke Park hierarchy doesn’t care who wins. Or loses.

What’s the solution?

A rethink is required to restore the competition to its former glory.

Unfortunately, one group of people are going to be collateral damage: county players. It’s an idea that’s been bandied about for some time (remember those really, very, very important legal wranglings surrounding University players’ eligibility for the McKenna Cup, of all things?). Now feels like the right point to act – with the NFL more compact than ever; with the trend towards an unspoken professionalism amongst the stronger counties continuing at break-neck pace.

The ruling would go something along these lines: if you’re part of your county’s NFL squad you aren’t eligible to play Sigerson Cup. (Obviously there would be issues surrounding participation in the pre-Christmas Ryan Cup, but this is only a thought-experiment! Maybe last season’s county players are exempt too? Yes, that will do.)

With participation in the McKenna Cup, NFL, U20 Championship and the All Ireland SFC itself, is it really a requirement for inter-county players to involve themselves in the Sigerson Cup? Why should county players have all the fun?

There would be an argument that the quality of the football played within the Sigerson would take a hit. But this is only theoretical – would it really make much difference to the overall standard and entertainment? I’d happily wager that it would not. (Not that too many would notice!)

In fact, the flip side is that decent club players from around the country would gain from playing University-level football. Without county seniors, the Sigerson would provide a chance for players who came through minor county squads (and not on senior panels) to take more prominent roles, whilst opening a much wider shop window for those club players who wouldn’t otherwise receive such exposure at a national level. Don’t worry about a lack of quality, the country is teeming with brilliant footballers who barely see the light of day.

This change would actually play a small part in improving the quality of county squads. In the above interview, Niall Moyna suggests that the Sigerson Cup is an excellent stepping stone to inter-county football. It’s time to make it just that: a stepping stone.

The scholarship question

There’s one elephant in the room when it comes to discussing county players non-participation in the Sigerson Cup – scholarships. With the big question being, could scholarships continue for county players if they don’t feature in the premier competition?

Many Irish Universities give elite GAA scholarships to as many as forty students – across all GAA codes – each year. But here’s the baffling thing: most of these players feature in a maximum one or two Sigerson games a season, in front of paltry midweek crowds. So it’s not as if the scholarship investment gets massive returns on the field of play.

In the United States, college sports programs are massive businesses. The NCAA basketball tournament is one of the most-watched sporting events of the year. Many college football teams play in front of over 80,000 crowds on a weekly basis. Their coaches are paid multi-million salaries. Tying scholarships for elite sportsmen to on-field performances actually makes sense in that scenario. The Sigerson doesn’t quite have the same profile to say the absolute least, and therefore shouldn’t be used as a qualifier for scholarships.

As Brian Howard’s recent stance neatly illustrates, surely top players can receive scholarships as normal and still act as ambassadors for their chosen university, without playing Sigerson?

The bottom line is that GAA scholarships would still exist.

But if it brings a halt to the oft-suspected activity of certain players getting “bought”, then it will go some way to preserving the academic fidelity of Ireland’s educational institutions. (Many Sigerson teams in recent years have resembled a provincial select. It probably wasn’t due to the Universities Humanities programmes.)

And… if it opens up scholarship schemes to some of the lesser lights then it might help narrow the chasm that is currently opening between inter-county players and everyone else. Should help with tuition fees be the sole preserve of county players?

The expected backlash

There’s likely to be an obvious backlash to this proposal from a number of quarters. The most vocal of which would likely be former inter-county players who played in, and excelled, at Sigerson level. That’s understandable. But I’d hazard a guess that those same players are thinking about the Sigerson Cup in “their day”. When eight teams rocked up to a host venue for a weekend of fun, frolics, and maybe even a bit of football. When the Sigerson embodied much about what it meant to be a student in Ireland. When games were decided by penalty shootouts. When post-match banquets went wrong in boathouses. When the trophy itself was likely to go missing for a full year after a night of celebration at a South Belfast drinking establishment.

But the Sigerson isn’t like that any more. Inter-county football has taken precedence. Semi-finals on a Wednesday night is emblematic of a GAA calendar that has turned the most romantic of competitions into a sterile box-tick.

Those former inter-county players that rightly celebrate their Sigerson travails, would surely agree that change is needed.

The chances of this happening are slim

Do I expect this proposal to ever see the light of day?

Of course not. 

Due to a severe lack of common sense, inertia and downright stubbornness, seemingly obvious improvements to GAA competitions seem beyond the grasp of those in Croke Park HQ. Their main argument will firstly push back on the Universities themselves who have a strong desire to play inter-county players as it increases their profile (helping with their bums on seats quotas). Then they will point to a loss of general exposure: if the county guys aren’t playing, then TV, media and sponsors won’t have as much interest in the tournament.

That would be a shallow argument. The Sigerson is already blighted by eligibility rows, and attendances at midweek games at University campuses are extremely low.

Exposure is limited, unfortunately. But…

The Sigerson was never about big attendances, or having the country’s best players coerced into playing. It was never about media bans. It had a charm all of its own and those in charge of University competitions should work hard to bring it back.

They need to remove themselves from the fealty shown to their inter-county overlords and allow the Sigerson Cup to stand proud once more. To regain its rightful place as one of the sports’ most entertaining weekends. Maybe then county players and county managers will start treating it with the respect it deserves.

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