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Third-level sides nearing the end in McKenna Cup, but what's next?

A college vs county debate has been sparked in Ulster in recent weeks.

Image: Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

ARMAGH ASSISTANT MANAGER Jim McCorry added his name yesterday to the growing list of voices who’ve questioned the value of retaining university sides in the Dr McKenna Cup.

Queen’s University, Ulster University and St Mary’s College have competed in the Ulster pre-season since the early 2000s, but they may not be doing so for much longer.

In the Section B opener, St Mary’s, who were without several inter-county players, shipped a heavy 25-point beating to Armagh in the opening round of the competition. It prompted McCorry to ask: “Is there any benefit for the county in that? Is there any real benefit for St Mary’s?”

Ulster University managed to snatch a draw with Fermanagh in Section C despite the absence of seven players who were all involved with their counties - Benny Gallen, Brian Kennedy, Ben McDonald and David Mulgrew (Tyrone), Ryan Owens and Jason Duffy (Armagh), and Gareth McKinless (Derry). 

Following the game, Ulster University GAA President Tommy Joe Farrell called for a new McKenna Cup law to prevent counties from picking players named on college panels. “Every year it’s the same old chestnut: ‘Who should the university boys play for?’ In my opinion they should be playing for their university,” he stated.

On 30 December in Section A, Queen’s University lost to Donegal by a convincing 10-point margin. They were well under-strength and manager Shane Mulholland admitted the absentees due to county bosses refusing to release players for the game was “a massive complicator.”

College sides were placed into the inter-county pre-season competitions almost two decades ago with the idea of giving them the experience of playing at a higher standard ahead of the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cup campaigns.

Darragh Canavan scores a point despite Paul McNeill Tyrone's Darragh Canavan scores a point against Derry in their recent McKenna Cup meeting. Source: Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

The universities were supposed to have first choice on their players, but that idea has gently eroded over the years. Some managers are pressurising players to put inter-county games and even training sessions first, but in many cases youngsters are calling the shots as they look to establish themselves on county panels.

As McCorry put it: “A lot of players want to be playing for their county because that’s what they want to do longer term.”

Last year, Brian Howard made the decision not to line out with DIT in the Sigerson Cup quarter-final against Tralee IT, instead focusing on nailing down his place for Dublin’s Division 1 clash against Donegal that weekend.

At the time, Jim Gavin said his players “simply make their decisions based on what is best for their professional, academic or sporting careers.” It becomes more complicated when scholarships are at stake for individuals.

It worked out alright for Howard, who returned to the DIT team for their semi-final loss to NUIG. He became a nailed-on starter with Dublin in the summer, winning an All-Star and a Celtic Cross after a brilliant season.

With the Allianz Hurling and Football League campaigns beginning in January once again, there’s a danger some players may follow Howard’s lead and opt out of third-level championship matches to focus on inter-county league games.

Peter Cooke and Brian Howard Brian Howard takes on Peter Cooke in the Sigerson Cup semi-final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In terms of the pre-season competitions, Ulster is the only province that allows third level sides enter (apart from the Kehoe Shield where DCU’s St Patrick’s campus take part). The O’Byrne Cup, McGrath Cup and FBD League only involve inter-county sides these days, as do hurling’s Walsh Cup, Munster Senior Hurling League and Kehoe Cup. 

But as has been the case for a long number of years, players between the ages of 18 to 22 continue to be dragged left, right and centre as they juggle various club, college and county commitments.

Over-use injuries are rife in the game with hip and groin operations reaching epidemic levels – and the players going under the knife in their early 20s have become worryingly common.

The farcical nature of Kieran Molloy being forced to play an All-Ireland club semi-final and Sigerson final on the same afternoon was an indictment on the Association, but little has been done. Moving the All-Ireland U21 football championship to a developmental U20 grade was the equivalent of using a band-aid to treat a broken leg.  

It all comes back to the issue of a proper fixtures calendar.

University teams are likely to have less and less access to their elite players as the demands in the inter-county game continue to rise. 

With the dissenting voices growing in Ulster, the McKenna Cup may well follow suit and shed its university sides in the next year or two.

But unless there’s a period set-out in the GAA calendar where third-level teams have exclusive access to their players, there’s only going to be one winner in the college vs county stakes. 

And that may signal trouble for the future of the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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