Kicking Out: Sigerson must use its last legs to move again
HOMELESSNESS is never a good sign for the future of a GAA competition.
Where the Railway Cup was once a red-carpet affair, by the mid-1990s attendances had plummeted and it lost its St Patrick’s Day billing.
It never recovered from that blow. They moved it from this spot in the calendar to that spot, taking it here, there and everywhere to try and spark some life and interest.
Men like Pete McGrath fought so valiantly to keep the flickering from going out.
It’s only been six years since it actually did, but both the football and hurling competitions had been on life-support for a long time.
The Sigerson Cup finds itself in similar territory now.
The last few weeks have been shambolic.
Jack O’Connor had absolutely no need to use Tony Brosnan and Jack Savage in a McGrath Cup game just hours after they’d played for MTU Kerry against UCD.
But it’s a less straightforward affair when it comes to Tommy Conroy, who looks likely to miss the season now with Mayo after suffering a bad knee injury on Sigerson duty with NUIG.
He’d played 48 hours earlier for his county.
With a knee injury, there can be no direct correlation made, no blame apportioned to anyone for the fact he had a busy calendar.
He wasn’t the only one and plenty survived it without any significant bangs.
There can be indirect questions asked, though.
For instance, did the stress placed on his body have any impact at all? It’s almost impossible to actually know, but two high-end games just over two days apart definitely can’t have helped.
Perhaps unfairly, it’s placed the sun above the microscope again, and burning through it is the Sigerson’s future.
Third-level GAA is a tricky one. Sure, the players enjoy playing in it, but players would equally enjoy a game of five-a-side football on a Wednesday evening if they had half a chance. You don’t put the GAA calendar on hold for that.
The social aspect is oversold in the modern day. In some third-level establishments, many of the players are on part-time courses that see them very rarely attend campus, especially now in hybrid times.
When Martin McHugh was in charge of Jordanstown, he didn’t know whether he was coming or going with players. On paper, he had a star-studded squad. In reality, he didn’t, because they weren’t there.
He’d managed Sligo IT at the start of this century and said back in 2016 that “it was a lot, lot easier at that time to manage Sigerson teams than it is now. If the thing keeps going at the minute, I think the universities and colleges will get together and make a decision just to go with club players because they’ll be available to them,” said the Donegal man at the time.
When Jordanstown hosted the Sigerson weekend that year, I was dispatched from the office to cover the hosts’ semi-final against holders and Dublin giants DCU.
When I climbed the grassy hill to the top pitch that afternoon, a temporary stand had been set up. This must be it, I thought.
I waited, and waited, and waited. 20 minutes before the game, there wasn’t another sinner about. I panicked and took off looking for the match somewhere else. By the time I made my way back, the teams were just coming out on the field.
When there was ever a bad crowd at a game, Derry scribe Bernie Mullan would wisecrack about the time Gerry Donnelly said he’d announce the crowd to the teams at one particularly poorly-attended National League game.
That was how it felt. Bar a very few stragglers, nobody came. It was deathly quiet.
As the Railway Cup floundered, it was on the back of not having a set date and nobody coming to watch it.
The GAA will be keen to protect the link to third-level education, as will the GPA, given their promotion of the off-field, everyday support provided to players.
It doesn’t seem right for the players’ body to stand idly by and accept the madness that January and February bring upon them.
“I think that is where player welfare has to be and organisations like the GPA should take a pretty strong stand here now in terms of looking after the players because this time of the year you might have two games a week and that can be fine but there needs to be something in place regarding the number of minutes a player plays and if a team breaches that they should be penalised,” suggested UCD and Westmeath’s Ray Connellan, who called Jack O’Connor’s actions in playing Brosnan and Savage “braindead”.
The last fortnight has put a massive stress test on the whole concept.
The inter-county window is still getting comfortable in its new skin, having been zapped down from nine months to seven.
Never have the Allianz Leagues been more important. Outside Division One, you don’t win the All-Ireland. Outside Division Two, you don’t even get to play for it.
A Sigerson Cup that gets squeezed into the first two weeks of the Allianz Leagues is a competition that will be besieged by problems from now until doomsday.
This year’s McKenna Cup ran off peacefully. There was open dialogue between inter-county managers and university coaches. It worked for all parties.
But when it comes to inter-county league against university championship, sense can go out the window. Everyone wants those players available, and that’s how you end up with men playing potentially four games in 10 days.
If the Sigerson Cup doesn’t move then this issue will not only re-emerge next year, but it will eventually signal the death of the competition. Inter-county teams will always win out in the row.
So third-level institutions have two choices.
They either bring the Sigerson forward and play it from early December into early January, through their exam timetables, or they face a future without inter-county players.
The first option is not ideal.
The second option will push the Sigerson Cup into the same shallow grave as the Railway Cup.