John Divilly celebrated his fifth year in charge of the UCD footballers with a second Sigerson Cup on Saturday, as the Belfield college narrowly beat NUI Galway in a thrilling final.
He has background and perspective in the third-level championship, which is the oldest representative competition in the GAA outside of the inter-county championships.
Divilly was centre back on the terrific UCD team, which won the 1996 Sigerson before winning an All-Ireland two years later with Galway. Since 2014 he has been in charge of the UCD footballers.
“Sigerson managers need a lot of patience because there a few curve balls thrown at you every week,” he says.
The pressure on players alternating between county and college has been highlighted in recent weeks. Divilly believes that they should be allowed make a choice between the two and that this should be respected and upheld by GAA rules, much as happened until recently in the pre-season provincial tournaments when college players were ring-fenced.
"There's a new president coming in," he says in reference to John Horan, who takes over at next weekend's annual GAA congress. "He might be willing to help sort this out. Trial it for a year or two like they're doing with the championship and see if it works. There's no-one here forcing a young lad to play Sigerson. If he doesn't want to play, can get involved recreationally in the college and play with his club and county – there's no problem.
“But the guys who really want to play it but don’t want the fear and the backlash of having to train or play with the county. ‘I have to play this O’Byrne Cup match on Sunday but I really want to play Sigerson on Tuesday but don’t want the fear of losing my place with the county.’”
He says that it cuts both ways and that a number of UCD players from last year decided not to get involved again because they wanted to concentrate on academic work and/or pursue their inter-county careers.
The obvious clash on Saturday was with the club championship, as the two Corofin players Ciarán Molloy and Liam Silke missed the Sigerson final because of their All-Ireland club semi-final.
That particular issue was flagged from the moment that the Sigerson draw was made in December and Divilly sees it as another reason to support the rationalising of the club championships. But he also strongly believes that a process of consultation is needed to get the views of college players and then to act on them.
“If the club championship was brought into the calendar year that would be one example. They need to sit down with people who know what they’re talking about. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of a 19-20-21 year-old, who has to pick his gear bag up six and seven times this week. He’s been pulled from Billy to Jack and doesn’t want to let anyone down.
“He doesn’t want to let his team-mates down in college, who he’s living with day in and day out for years and who will stay lifelong friends – more so than maybe an inter-county squad. The authorities haven’t put themselves into the shoes of a college student.
“We’re only talking about a small percentage of players in a county. There’s only a certain number of any panel who are students and it only affects them for the two or three years that they’re there. If they could just talk to the guys without fear of an inter-county manager reading about them and that they want to play Sigerson rather than county for a few weeks.
“Some players are very strong-minded but not all. I want them to be able to say, ‘John, I don’t want to play Sigerson. I want to concentrate on the county’. Or vice versa – ‘I want to play with the college for a few weeks and I’ll commit to the county for the rest of the year. Is that okay?’
“At the moment, how many of those conversations do you think happen?”
He says that preparation for the Sigerson isn’t particularly intense, as there just isn’t the time to give to it with all of the competing demands on players.
“There’s no strength and conditioning or fitness training – obviously if guys aren’t doing it anywhere else we arrange it but so many are involved with county and even clubs are doing as much work as inter-county guys – but we’re really about the football and the enjoyment of it, which is big stress reliever for them.
“There isn’t as much video analysis and stats but we’re not naïve: of course there’s analysis and match-ups but not to same extent as county because we simply don’t have the time.”
Divilly says he hasn't had any problems with county managers this season and understands that they have their own responsibilities. Kilkenny hurling manager Brian Cody said at the weekend that he would be allowing college players on his panel to train with their teams and wouldn't pick any involved in Saturday's Fitzgibbon final for the following day's league match against Tipperary.
“I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t supportive,” says Divilly. “They’re playing in a knock-out championship and if they can do the business there, there’s a great chance that they’ll be able to produce it in the latter stages of the league or the championship.”