A little over a century after the competition's first final was staged at Dalymount Park, the links between the Collingwood Cup, which kicks off in Belfast on Monday, and senior club football are deeper than ever.
However, the manager of one of the sides competing next week believes the FAI needs to act in order to protect the interests of colleges and the integrity of the oldest surviving all-Ireland football tournament.
Like several League of Ireland clubs and third level institutions, the association has made much of the expanding opportunities that are available to young players to stay in Ireland, develop their careers and secure an education, often through scholarships. But DCU first team coach, Declan Roche – a league winner with Cork City 25 years ago – believes that the issue of access to players needs to be clarified due to what he sees as pressure on them from clubs not to fulfil their obligations to colleges.
Around 100 League of Ireland players are currently studying at third level but the issue, which bears a striking resemblance to the old club versus country quandary that professional players were put in before Fifa took action to clarify the situation, primarily revolves around those on scholarships who also play for a separate club.
At this time of year, they find themselves the focus of a tussle between club coaches and colleges as preseason for the new Airtricity League campaign is in full swing but the third level leagues are reaching their climax and the traditional highlight of the university calendar, the Collingwood, comes around.
Roche found himself having to negotiate this week – and not always successfully – with a number of club managers to secure the availability for a league quarter-final and next week’s trip to Belfast of players he says are obliged to represent the college in key games under the terms of their scholarship deals.
“There are so many players in the league on scholarships and they are enhancing the league,” says Roche, “and yet there is a huge, huge problem getting the players released. I’ve had to ring league managers and see where we are. Some of the managers are very good to deal with but with others it is a battle. I can understand where they are and I’m not saying that their preseason isn’t important but from our point of view these are scholarship students and we see these games as important.”
The college has a total of 15 soccer scholarship students, 10 of them men. All of them also play for outside clubs, some in the Airtricity League, others in the Leinster Senior League. The latter, he suggests, has increasingly been an issue as facilities improve and more midweek games are scheduled although its officials have recently indicated that they will do more to ensure that clashes are avoided.
The FAI appears reluctant to get involved in the situation with regard to senior clubs though, despite the importance it publicly attaches to the scholarship programmes and what seems to be a widespread acceptance that there is a problem.
“I was at the launch of the colleges’ season at Abbotstown and a lot of the league managers are there as people talk about the great work being done and I’m asking myself what some of those people are doing there. Some of the league clubs have been very good but with some the players are reluctant not to play for their clubs; there is a fear factor there and they end up not playing for DCU and that puts their scholarship status in danger.”
Recent changes in the timing of the league season have not helped. The Collingwood was brought forward to avoid a clash last year and has this year been switched to the traditional Harding Cup (for first year students) but the Airtricity League Premier Division has also started a week earlier in each of the two years meaning that the problem has not really been addressed at all.
DCU won the Harding last year and Roche is hoping to take a strong squad to Belfast but doubts about the availability of players is an ongoing issue and he is not sure whether he will have key squad members like Waterford's Rory Feely, Longford defender Tristan Noack-Hofman or Jamie Lennon for their Rustlers' League semi-final in a couple of weeks time.
Things have become so bad that Fran Butler, the university's soccer development officer, acknowledges that the payment of scholarship monies until the end of the second semester so as be able to assess whether the players have met their obligations.
“The players sign a deal saying they will play and train and help run the clubs here,” he says. “We won’t want to be pressuring the kids but if they don’t hold up their end of the bargain then we’re entitled to say that.” The scholarships, he estimates, are worth in excess of €1,200 in cash and access to various facilities at DCU and both point out the college provides a level of medical backing that some clubs cannot match with players then falling back on it in the event of a problem.
The problem is by no means limited to DCU and links between clubs and colleges are fairly widespread Maynooth won the Collingwood in 2014 thanks in no small part to a link with St Patrick's Athletic. Sean Hoare, now with Dundalk, was the best known of the club's players to feature in a side then coached by Ger O'Brien and Brendan Clarke but restrictions are understood to have been placed on the availability of final year finance student, Darragh Markey, this season as well as DCU's Lennon and as of Friday lunchtime no decision had been made as to whether to make them available for Belfast.
“We play Bray in the Leinster Senior Cup on Sunday afternoon and we only have 16 outfield players available so Darragh and Jamie are needed for that game, it’s part of our preparations for the new season,” says O’Brien, now assistant manager and director of the youth set up at Richmond Park.
“We love the lads going to school but these players are on professional contracts; if one of them picks up a hamstring and is out for six weeks they still have to be paid and three games (the schedule for the two teams that reach the final) in three days is farcical. Obviously I was involved with Maynooth and it was great but we had two lads out for the final, you’re just bound to have injuries, and one of them was basically a broken man. The structure of the Collingwood, I know it’s been going a long, long time but they really need to look at revamping it.”
Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa, meanwhile, were forced to field a weakened team in the league quarter-finals against UCD in part because two of their regulars, Adam O'Sullivan and Charlie Fleming, were involved in a game with Cobh Ramblers.
The pair had played in most of the college's game this year and manager Liam Murphy, another member of that Cork City title winning side is reluctant to criticise Ramblers boss Stephen Henderson as he says there were a number of injuries too, the pair's absence certainly did not help and after having done well to reach that stage of the competition, CSN were ultimately beaten 12-0.
Murphy acknowledges, however, that pressure from clubs can be used as an excuse by players doing well at club level and preferring the prestige that comes with playing for league sides. “Others are mainly focused on coaching and don’t really want to play competitively. It’s getting harder; I’ve always said that I would never beg players to play but I’m certainly having to ask them if they will now.”
John Caulfield, who managed the UCC side that beat NUI Galway in the 2011 final, agrees that some players start to feel that colleges football is not something they want to participate in if things are going well at club level.
It was not a problem that he had to deal with, however, as the UCC students were bound by their agreement with the college to play for its first team in the Munster Senior League, just as UCD’s players play in the League of Ireland.
“We didn’t even consider players at outside League of Ireland teams for the Collingwood. That was the situation I inherited and I had no problem with it. At Cork, I’d tend to encourage players to play for their colleges, it gives them games and the standard can be good although it doesn’t really arise at the moment.
“At other clubs, there might be pressure on a manager who feels he needs a particular player but it is hard on the colleges. I remember we played Queens one time and they wouldn’t have beaten our third team but they explained afterwards that a lot of their players had been prevented from playing by Irish league sides. As it is, I’m sorry to see what is happening. The Collingwood has been moved and the format changed (group stages are gone these days, the number of participants reduced by way of a qualifying round that accounted for Galway, UL and the College of Surgeons and the event lasts just three days with DCU potentially out of the main competition on the first, in which case Roche says he would release his better players). I remember it as a unique week but if it ends up going the way of the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon cups it will end up being just like any other competition.”
This year’s Collingwood Cup, hosted by Queens, gets underway on Monday at 11.0. The quarter-final line up is: Queens v Trinity, UCC v Mary Immaculate College, University of Ulster v DCU, UCD v Maynooth.