A warning went around The Irish Times not so long ago to avoid the inappropriate use of the term "legend" in copy but it's hard to steer clear of it when dealing with the Collingwood Cup which celebrates its centenary out in Belfield next week.
The tournament has, amongst other things, survived partition and wars over the past century but so vague is much of the early detail that “legend” might actually flatter what survives of the story with a significant academic effort required recently even to uncover the identity of the early winners.
Along the way, a couple of trophies, including the one originally donated by Professor Bertram Collingwood, a nephew of Charles Hodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) donated back in 1914 to get the whole thing started, have disappeared. The first, it is variously claimed, having been thrown in the Boyne by Queens students or handed, in lieu of rent, to a UCD student's unscrupulous landlord.
First official game
There is no shortage of stories, or scepticism about them, but the facts are that some 31 years after Dublin University had played the first official game of football in Dublin, against Dublin AFC (who apparently won comfortably enough for their goalkeeper to smoke a pipe throughout) in College Park, the first Collingwood was staged in Prospect Park, Glasnevin where UCD beat Queens in the final after UCG and Trinity had been eliminated.
The two finalists completely dominated the competition for an awful long time afterwards. But the real achievement was that the competition endured despite a break for the first World War, an acrimonious split into two of the game’s governing body on the island and then further recriminations between the two association in the early 1930s when it was suspended for a couple of years.
Class might have been an element in its survival, acknowledges UCD's Dr Paul Rouse, who has recently compiled a brief history of the tournament but, he says, "there was probably a practical element too . . . Belfast was the real hotbed of Irish football in the early years so the Dublin colleges would have wanted Queens and if they didn't enter then where would they play?"
From the ’50s, in any case, the whole thing broadened out considerably with UCG returning after a long absence to join UCC and the longer standing regulars. Since then, the precise numbers have fluctuated – there has even been a bit of controversy over the definition of university employed when it came to deciding eligibility – along with the format and length of the tournament. But next week there will be 11 colleges playing knockout over four days of the Eircom sponsored event with consolation competitions for the early losers.
"It was bigger and longer," says Professor Liam Spillane of UCG, "but the current format is probably more manageable for everyone concerned."
It has always had, somewhat inevitably, its social element with UCG's Dermot Rooney, recalling how the college's first title had been celebrated for a week but anybody who doubts whether it matters to the players should wander along to a clash between UCD and Trinity.
The former's League of Ireland involvement has helped cement its place as the tournament's dominant force with five title wins in the last seven years. While the policy towards league players participating has varied down the years, club secretary Dick Shakespeare remembers when Dr Tony O'Neill, needing a win to qualify for the semi-finals on home soil back in 1995 threw Jason Sherlock and Mick O'Byrne on until the required number of goals had been scored then quickly got them off. "The tournament mattered to him and he had that competitive element to him alright," he says.
More famous players than that have participated with Kevin Moran and Conor Sammon both representing UCD and future rugby international Hugo McNeill have played for Trinity. Cork City boss John Caulfield, who has been involved with the UCC team for the last few years believes the standard is on the rise again due to the number of league players involved now with various colleges even if, as a matter of policy, the southerners don't use theirs in the event. "It's very competitive," he says, "and in the years I'm involved the standard's been going up."