There’s a standing joke here on the sportsdesk when it comes to the Fitzgibbon Cup weekend: tell the photographers to turn their backs on the action out on the field and focus on the personalities in the crowd.
Invariably there’s a stellar line-up on the sideline, out beyond the bainisteoirs, who are usually highly recognisable themselves. A quick glance along the sideline last Friday in the Mardyke showed us Tomas Mulcahy, John Allen, John Considine, Seanie McGrath and Kieran Kingston. Davy Fitzgerald and Brian Lohan, long-time teammates with Clare, were in managerial mode with LIT and UL respectively.
Former Cork stars Paul O’Connor and Pat Mulcahy oversaw the finalists, UCC and CIT. It goes on and on. The tournament’s attractiveness to spectators isn’t based solely on proximity to the big names of the GAA. There’s something irresistibly alluring to hurling supporters in a Friday afternoon college game, for one thing: yours truly remembers, from a short stint many years ago in the public service, the complicated plans several colleagues put into effect to escape for a 2pm throw-in at the ‘Dyke.
Waxed jackets left on chairs, the death of a third grandmother, coughing up one’s own pelvis in front of the boss: all weapons-grade excuses were deployed to get out the door.
None of them were disappointed they’d done so, either, they told me at six o’clock in The Western Star that same Friday. That establishment has gone the way of progress but other constituent elements of the Fitzgibbon weekend were present this weekend: the weather, for instance. It’s an article of faith that unless the games are played in conditions slightly more unpleasant than those accompanying Mallory’s 1921 attempt on the North Col of Everest, then it is not really a Fitzgibbon Cup weekend; to that end it was reassuring to see the rain hammer down on Saturday, though the muddy trench warfare of some previous tournaments was thankfully missing.
Arctic conditions still attach themselves to the experience, though. The programme for last weekend featured a centre-spread photo of one of UCC’s all-conquering sides of the early 80’s, with a youthful Nicky English in the middle at the front, and all the players in shot look perished, in a word. On the strictly games development side, one of the great GAA cliches is the benefit of Fitzgibbon/Sigerson competition to the development of star intercounty players, with much anecdotal suggestion that said players would never have made it to the top otherwise (the dozens of third-level players who never progress to the county jersey at the senior grade are usually omitted when it comes to weighing up such evidence).
That’s the wrong angle to take, though. The competition exists in its own right and should be accepted as such rather than as a feeder stream into the intercounty machine. Another twist is the simple fact that the conditions on offer in third-level competition in February-March differ hugely in comparison with what’s underfoot and overhead in July and August. To that end, while you wouldn’t seriously contest many of the selections on the Fitzgibbon team of the century, many a star turn in the tournament has been a player better suited to sucking mud and driving rain than the pinball-and-heat effect of championship games played in the height of summer.
(There’s a whole parallel argument, by the way, which could incorporate the Sigerson/Fitzgibbon attendances, for instance, as a plea for preserving interprovincial competitions: the attendance was healthy in Cork over the weekend but not vast, yet no-one would seriously contemplate abolishing the colleges competitions).
Though a former UCC student your columnist had only one close encounter with the Fitzgibbon Cup. While munching on a corned beef sandwich in a near-deserted college canteen some time in the 80’s, I was surprised to look up and find Timmy Cummins wandering around with a vast silver cup under his arm. He was looking for someone but as that person was not to be found, would I mind the Cup while he got some soup? “Yeah, leave it there,” I said.
So I polished off my corned-beef sandwich with the Fitzgibbon perched on the table in front of me, and when Timmy came back I left him to it. The trophy wasn’t a stranger to UCC in those days, hence my blase acceptance of a large silver dining companion, but there were more pointed lessons to be learned over the weekend.
For instance, the plethora of Cork players involved in the critical passages of the final itself – players like Dean Brosnan and James Coughlan – who may not figure this season for Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s senior team, was reassuring to many of the natives in attendance.
The names still involved in the freshers competition and thus ineligible for the Fitzgibbon itself – Dowling and Hannon of Limerick, Lehane of Cork, for instance – guarantee the tournament will hold its audience a while longer.
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