Colm Cavanagh: Sigerson brought me great memories but its future is in doubt

8 March 2008; Mark Vaughan, DIT, in action against Colm Cavanagh, left, and Mark Lynch, UUJ, Ulster Bank Sigerson Cup semi-final, UUJ v DIT, Carlow IT, Carlow. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

THE Sigerson Cup, a bit like my hairline, isn’t quite what it used to be. Gone are the days when it was a pivotal weekend in the footballing calendar and my fear is that if something isn’t changed soon, it could be gone for good.

With the changes to the football schedule, we had concerns over whether the McKenna Cup would still be able to find a space in the year to make it worthwhile.

Have the same concerns been expressed about the Sigerson Cup? Maybe it is because I’m so many years past playing university football that I haven’t been in touch with those playing or any of the build-up to the competition but when I did play for UUJ back in the day, it was the two or three weeks of the year that everyone looked forward to and all anyone talked about for weeks afterwards.

When I first starting playing for UUJ, the matches took place in the small window between McKenna Cup and National League so we had the freedom to go and play for our university and enjoy the matches while hoping that there would be a representative from our county looking on to see if they could discover any new or emerging talents.

This trend has really reversed in the last few years and players who have the choice are opting to remain at county training and forego the opportunity to represent their university.

Now that the county season is being played before the club season, I can only imagine the pressure to play county and remain within that set-up is stronger than ever.

County managers will want their squad assembled in December to kick the year off as a unit and remain that way until the Championship season has finished, and rightly so.

If guys are training over the dark, wet and cold winter nights but they know that it is for the potential of winning an Ulster medal or an All-Ireland title, then there is not much more motivation required than that.

On the other hand, the university managers will be wanting to entice players (especially fringe players) to come and play for them – this seems like an impossible task to lure someone from the bright lights of National League and Championship football back to the DUB or St. Mary’s.

I was very lucky to be part of a brilliant team at UUJ when we won the Sigerson Cup in 2008. We had a core group of players who had come through successful seasons with their county at minor level and many other players who had never pulled on a county jersey (and never did) in their playing careers. There was a bit of a stir created in the media when myself, Damien McCaul and a few others opted to play the McKenna Cup for Tyrone rather than UUJ.

We had already experienced success at university level and we knew that we would have to commit to Tyrone if we were to have any chance of making it through to be named in the squad for the National League that year.

What stood out for me at the time was that the decision was left entirely up to the player. I know that is something that we should perhaps have been grateful for but I don’t remember any communication between the managers of the county and the university trying to stake their claims for their player. It was up to us at that young age to effectively pick a side and stick to it.

We were lucky that we all went on to play for our county, which justified our decision at the time, but what would be the position if we had have picked county and it didn’t work out? Would we have been accepted back with the university as a second choice or left to fall between two stools and not get to play for either?

It made us feel that university was always the second choice, the competition for those who didn’t make it on to the county set-up. With the new footballing calendar, I can only see this being even more prevalent.

With the change in age brackets for minors and Under-whatever it is these days (that’s a discussion for another time) the university is further disadvantaged. We typically start university at around 18-19 years old (unless you are Jim McGuinness and are starting your seventh degree and still playing university football in your 30s) and we have graduated by typically 21-22 years old. There are a very short few years there and with the Sigerson season being so compact it is going to be harder than ever to create appeal and glamorise the competition to make it stand up never mind stand out and attract players to opt in ahead of playing for their county.

I don’t know what the solution is, is it timing, investment or a change to the rules? I have to say that playing for UUJ and winning the Sigerson was one of the best experiences of my life.

Maybe the fact that it is the only medal I have over my brother Sean makes it even more special for me but I really did make friends for life in that time and I can only recommend the whole experience. If any player has the opportunity to take part then I would say do it, you won’t regret it.

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