Ten years ago last month, University College Cork won the centenary Sigerson Cup in Belfield. It was an affirmation of old-style collective spirit but also a cocoon for emerging intercounty talent. Coach Billy Morgan perceptively said after the match.
“I’m sure you’ll hear of a lot of these players in the future – for Cork and unfortunately a good few of them for Kerry!”
His words resonated earlier this week with the news that Kerry's Peter Crowley was to hang up his intercounty boots. The All Star and member of his county's most recent All-Ireland-winning team grabbed the attention that weekend before he had made a senior championship appearance, holding Conor McManus to a point from play.
Morgan looks back on that team and again makes the connection.
“When Kerry won their last All-Ireland in 2014, there were actually eight ex-UCC players starting with them that day and I think another six on the panel. I always believed Sigerson was a good stepping stone to county because the standard is so good both among the players you’re playing against and training with. I don’t know if Kerry realise it or not!”
One of the players who came through that year in UCC was Stephen O’Brien, whose pace and directness had him in the conversation for Footballer of the Year in 2019. He came on as a replacement in the final.
“Stephen hadn’t even played minor or under-21 with Kerry at that stage,” says Morgan, “and I remember when he first came up, we were thinking, ‘what’s this small fella doing?’ But he was lightning and he won a Sigerson that year. It definitely brings on players and it surprises me that other intercounty managers don’t always grasp that.”
Crowley’s UCC career prefigured his intercounty roles. Although nominally a corner back in 2011, he was also extremely versatile and played throughout the defence, as he would do for Kerry.
Alongside his solidity in a variety of defensive roles, the Laune Rangers player was extraordinarily durable.
He missed the 2019 season because of a cruciate injury but taken as whole, his last three championships for Kerry – last year's sensationally terminated Munster campaign and the whole of 2018 and '17, Crowley played for every minute of the 11 matches, including extra-time last November when Cork's goal in the dying seconds was enough to defeat the champions.
Morgan remembers the player's impact on Sigerson 10 years ago. "He was corner back in the final but also our go-to man in defence and he could play all six positions. I remember we played St Mary's in a quarter-final and Peter Harte was their big player at the time at centre forward. We put our Peter on him and he did a really good job.
"The year before that, he was just young and we were in the final against DCU, who beat us and Paul Flynn was causing problems for us at centre forward that day. We went 0-4 to nil, down early on and that's what beat us but it was obvious that Peter had this great ability from the beginning and a great attitude."
He also captained the team in 2012. In all he played 34 championship matches for Kerry, starting 29 of them and finishing all but seven of those. Also on the 2011 team with Crowley and O'Brien was John Buckley and all of them started the 2014 All-Ireland final.
“I was surprised to see he had retired,” says Morgan, “but he was out for a year after doing his cruciate. He came back, played two remaining league games and then lined out against Cork. I thought with the time off he might be able to build it up but he’s working in the family pharmacy and may have enough on his plate.”
He is surprised though that Cork didn't make as much out of those Sigerson winners as their old rivals. A year later they would win Munster for what is so far, the last time. In November, the great win over Kerry was lost in defeat by Tipperary and now they get ready to go again.
For most of the past decade they have played second - and sometimes third -fiddle to Kerry. Morgan felt there was more material for his own county on the team.
"That 2011 team, a few came through: Mark Collins, Kevin O'Driscoll and Barry O'Driscoll but one of the best players on that team was Seán Kiely. He was brought on to the Cork panel but never really given a chance.
"Eoin O'Mahony was at full back and in that Sigerson he marked Michael Murphy and Matty Donnelly. He marked some of the best full forwards in the game - Tomás O'Connor from Kildare, who played with DIT. Again he got on to the Cork panel and played a league match against Tyrone and was dropped.
“I felt if these players had been persevered with, they would have come through.”