TRUDGING off the pitch at the Jordanstown Sports Village after crashing out of the Sigerson Cup at the hands of UCD, Ulster University knew they could do better. They were better.
Despite posting a noteworthy tally of 3-10, they left the 2023 competition with a whimper, falling ten points behind the Dublin College by the time the full-time whistle sounded. The concession of seven goals telling the tale.
12 months have passed since that faithful day and UU are once again heading into battle against UCD, who proudly sit at the top of the Sigerson Cup roll of honour with 34 titles, ten more than their closest competitors UCC and 29 more than tonight’s opponents.
“UCD came with a plan, and they perfected it, and we just weren’t on it,” recalled Burren and Down defender Ryan Magill, who captains UU into this evenings Sigerson Cup final.
“We were close enough to them after half time but silly mistakes from different aspects of the game, pushing up when maybe we shouldn’t have, different stuff that you have to learn from.
“We set out our stall at the start of the year that we wanted to get a wee bit further than last year, we were embarrassed in not reaching the quarter-finals last year and we had to take a long look at ourselves.
“We knew we were better than that but to be in a final now, it’s a great place to be. Coming off the field last year, it was hard to even talk about it because the defeat was that bad. It was one of them, we knew ourselves, we didn’t need anyone to tell us how bad it was.
“We met at the start of the year and knew that if we played like that again we’d get another trouncing but luckily enough we’ve been alright so far.”
UCD have been a familiar foe for Barry Dillon’s men over the past year. The sides have already crossed paths in this Sigerson Cup campaign and while the margin was eight-points this time around, it still ended in defeat for the Belfast based university.
David Garland of Monaghan netted a hattrick last year while Roscommon’s Daire Cregg raised two green flags. The two sharpshooters remain the focal point of the UCD attack while Donnacha Gilmore (Derry), and Ben O’Carroll (Roscommon) also need marked.
“We played them in a Ryan Cup quarter-final and we beat them, but they were well short that night, there was still club football being played and county sessions that people didn’t want to miss. It was two teams that were slightly different from what they’ll be tonight.
“We played them in the second round of the Sigerson this year as well and to be fair, they were the far better team that day, they gave us a beating. They produced it that day and we’ll just have to lick our wounds and see how we can improve.
“Having played them before, it will give us an insight but they’ll have an insight into us as well so you can’t read into it too much, it’s 50/50 more than anything.”
Magill will be tasked with limiting that UCD firepower and if he and his defence succeeds, UU will be in with a chance as they have their own attacking arsenal that can do damage with the Canavan’s, Darragh and Ruairi, along with Niall Loughlin up top.
“Jordanstown talk about friends for life and you’re always meeting new people from all around Ulster that you’ve probably played against, but you don’t really know what their real personality is and how they are as a person.
“Getting to know the people from other counties, it really does bring you all together and it’s great football to play in, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my last two years at it.
“I played against Niall Loughlin in an early McKenna Cup game this year, and I was a bit iffy. I was wondering what he was like, but he’s been brilliant with us so far. He brings a bit of experience because he’s been around the county team for a while now.
“The two Canavan’s, you just want to hand them the ball and let them work their magic, but they mix well with the team and the rest of the boys. The talent’s there and you just need to give them the ball and see who’s capable of producing the goods.”
UU are hoping to land their first Sigerson Cup crown since 2008 following failed attempts in 2011 and 2014, but the long wait is unlikely to unnerve Magill, who is no stranger to big occasions.
He captained the Down u20s to an Ulster title last season and was part of the provincial winning team two years previous, both under the watchful eye of current Mourne boss Conor Laverty.
Magill paraded behind the band in his Burren club colours in 2023 as they came up against a Kilcoo side that proved too strong on the day, but those experiences, right throughout his career, have stood to the 20-year-old.
“Nerves never really would have hit me too hard even growing up,” explains Magill. “I’ve played in big games before, I’ve played in Féile finals and Paul McGirr finals, and nothing has ever really phased me too much.
“You just have to get on with it. It’s a game of football at the end of the day and two teams going to battle but I’ve had plenty of experience of finals and it boils down to who wants it the most and who’s going to work hardest.
“Luckily, I’ve been in a few finals where that’s been my team and other times it’s been the other way around, but it’ll be no different on Wednesday. It’s a privilege to be the captain of the university.
“Being captain of the Down u20s last year was a real privilege and you probably do feel an extra wee bit of pressure on yourself to deliver and we didn’t deliver last year with the u20s, we probably left an All-Ireland behind us, but I’ll be doing my best not to leave another one.”
With success comes lots of time, effort, commitment and dedication. While it’s a balancing act trying to juggle college football with inter-county duty, it’s a problem that Magill won’t complain too much about.
Slogging it out in the muck and gutters of January and February mightn’t appeal to many footballers up and down the country but playing the game he loves has been Magill’s lifelong ambition.
“The two managers, Barry Dillon (UU) and Conor Laverty (Down) have been brilliant. They have almost pulled me out of it, so I didn’t have to make any decisions, they’ve been communicating, and I’d say Barry has been communicating with all the managers.
“We want to play both college and county and rightly so, we’re young and we’re fresh and we’re ready to go. Both men have been great to me.
“There’s been periods where I could have been playing three games in seven days, but you grow up wanting to play football. You go and train and that’s all well and good, but the real thing is when the ball is thrown up and you’re ready to go, that’s where you want to be.”