‘Somebody has to beat them at some stage’

FRAN RYAN was a reluctant companion down Memory Lane this week. It isn’t that he dislikes the trip, just that 40-something years spent treading the boards as a player and coach with his beloved Marian have blurred his sense of recall.

Exact dates escape him but the sense of fulfilment he has extracted from it all shines through and the prospect of tomorrow’s National Cup final against Killester excavated recollections of a time when the two clubs regularly knocked heads at the summit of the Irish game.

“People forget that there was a huge rivalry between Killester and Marian during the 1970s and into the early part of the 80s,” said the man who will coach UCD Marian in their first cup final appearance at the National Arena in Tallaght.

“The two clubs shared six titles in that decade and points differentials had to be used to separate them two of those years. That’s over an 18-game season. So it’s a traditional rivalry that started way back at underage and then senior level.”

For almost 10 years, from the early 70s through to the dawn of the 80s, the two Dublin clubs were separated by the Liffey and the 10-minute drive between Killester on the northside and Ballsbridge on the far side of the river.

Both were among the six clubs that featured in a special tournament played in September 1981 when RTÉ screened basketball for the first time, further proof of how far they had travelled together since being formed within a year of each other in the late 60s.

Marian was founded by a maths teacher in the college, Brother Fintan. Killester was established by Fr Mick Casey, a priest from Knocknagree on the Cork and Kerry border and the two clubs soon found themselves sharing courts at underage and then senior grades.

Ryan can recall one night at the height of their rivalry when he arrived at the Oblate Hall in Inchicore for one game between the clubs only to be greeted by the sight of hundreds of spectators queuing to get in.

Such scenes became far more common around the country in the 80s when Irish basketball enjoyed its golden era but Killester fared better than Marian who, despite an eight-year association with Yoplait, never fully embraced the new commercial realities.

Marian’s rebirth came with the decision to approach UCD 10 years ago with the proposal that they combine their respective strengths — the former’s community structure and league membership with the latter’s facilities and conveyor belt of new talent.

They were a perfect fit. Marian was one of the founding members of the national league — along with Killester — while UCD was the oldest club in the country having been formed by Harry Boland, a former graduate who represented Ireland in the 1948 Olympics. Dr Tony O’Neill saw the possibilities of such a synergy and the UCD Marian side that takes to the hardwood as underdogs tomorrow will feature players who have come up through the ranks locally, others who have been sourced in UCD and some who have been nurtured in the area before attending college at Belfield.

The club sounded notice of their return to prominence by claiming the last three national U20 cup titles and the scholarship programme in UCD has served to keep a number of those players at home and out of the clutches of the American college scene.

Tomorrow will be the club’s biggest test against an old foe in new surroundings and there will be more than just Ryan tempted to reminisce on the days gone by. His assistant coach Michael Meany whose two sons play tomorrow, was a teammate back then. So too, was Neary’s brother Paul who is the current club chairman and executive chairman of Basketball Ireland.

Mick McCormack, Paul Meany’s counterpart with Killester will be among those in the opposition bleachers telling tales about the rivalry from the distant past and he will probably do so while harbouring a deep well of confidence.

Killester finished 2010 unbeaten and remain enviably positioned to claim another treble of National Cup, Northern Conference and Superleague despite unexpected defeats to DCU Saints and Belfast Star at the start of January.

Their pedigree in the cup is unquestioned having finished as champions in 2008 and again last year while also reaching the final in 2009. Ryan acknowledges the scale of the climb ahead of his side but sounds confident of their ability to reach the summit.

“Look at it this way, I’m a hurling man of Tipperary stock. My mother and father are both from Tipp and this is sort of like Kilkenny going for the five-in-a-row in that somebody has to beat them at some stage.”

How he would love if that was UCD Marian.

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