manager Aidan O’Rourke, who is also Queen’s University Belfast’s GAA Development Officer, has called for counties to see the bigger picture when it comes to releasing players for the pre-season provincial tournaments.
Third-level institutions have been competing in the inter-county competitions for 10 years now but the stipulation that players must line out with their college has caused friction with some county managers, most prominently three-times All-Ireland winner Mickey Harte in Tyrone.
Derry manager Brian McIver said earlier this week that he felt “the universities have got a very raw deal” on the issue of player availability and pointed out that the arrival of the colleges had revived the McKenna Cup in Ulster. Ironically, as the province pioneered the involvement of its third level sector, the issue has caused more difficulties in the North than elsewhere.
O’Rourke faces a busy few weeks with Queen’s hosting all four of this year’s third-level championships – football, hurling, women’s football and camogie. This is the first time such an ambitious venture has been taken on by the one institution and the first year in modern times that the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups will be played out at the same venue.
"I'd like to endorse what Brian McIver said in that interview," said O'Rourke. "From a county manager's perspective I can see both sides – the frustration when a player's not available to you but you still have them in that period for training games and challenge matches but if the spirit of how this was intended is maintained, the environment in which colleges were invited into these competitions has to be respected like it or not.
"Some people have been making a plethora of arguments in recent weeks as to why universities should be excluded or marginalised. If that's the case they need to go to their county boards and change what their county boards have signed up to with respect to the competition.
"The black and white facts are that the universities were invited in under an agreed set of regulations and rules. County boards all signed off on them and the universities signed on, on that basis. There's an annual convention at which county boards have the opportunity to change the regulations or remove them or not sign up to them.
"Every year since its initiation no one has even considered that and yet every year we have some managers dictating to county boards that they're going to do something different. County boards need to see the bigger picture for Gaelic games in their own county.
“In this conversation we’ve talked about how the development of players through the universities has been so influential in the success of counties in Ulster and trying to weaken them for the short-term objective of the McKenna Cup is in my opinion ludicrous.”
O’Rourke has a broad experience of both worlds having played and coached Sigerson with Queens and having become one of the most respected coaches at inter-county level. He’s looking forward to the busy period just ahead and says that it reflects the status of Gaelic games in the university. “That status has increased exponentially over the years. When I was a student Gaelic games was at that stage the largest club in the university and nowadays by quite a distance and facilities and funding reflect that.
“Back in the day Seán O’Neill (the great Down footballer of the 1960s and selection on the Team of the Millennium), the vice-president of the club and very active in it, would tell you a lot of stories about the difficulty they had establishing the club back in the 1950s. But those days are in the distant past and now Gaelic games are extremely well catered for.”
He sees the dynamic growth of the games in Queen’s as dating back 25 years or so, coinciding with the great success of the Ulster universities - Queen’s, Jordanstown and St Mary’s all won Sigerson Cups in the late 1980s and early 1990s – which was fundamental to the All-Ireland successes of Ulster counties that followed.
"James McCartan and Anthony Tohill (Queen' students and respectively Down and Derry All-Ireland winners in 1991 and 1993) would have been the first ground breakers in that respect. Gaelic games was still largely sidelined at that stage but starting to get profile. Ulster championship games were being televised on BBC."
Can Queen’s capitalise on home advantage in next month’s Sigerson if they qualify? “It’s hard to be definite that home advantage counts for much but some teams do well as hosts – it’s been good to us in the past as well.”