On the same weekend that Goliath-slayers Mullinalaghta take on another club heavyweight in Killarney’s Dr Crokes, and the tight-knit tribe of Gaoth Dobhair hope to re-insert joy back into their grieving community with a win over All-Ireland kingpins Corofin, it’s fitting that elsewhere a third underdog is pitting themselves against a behemoth.
Two years on from their remarkable 2017 Sigerson Cup victory, St Mary’s University Belfast are back to stake a claim for a place in this year’s decider. Tomorrow’s opponents? Reigning champions and perennial Sigerson giants, University College Dublin.
‘The Ranch’ is a teacher training college from Belfast’s Falls Road with a population of just 850 students, only around 200 of those male. To put that into context, UCD is Ireland’s largest university, with over 1,482 faculty members and 32,000 students. That huge disparity in numbers didn’t matter a jot though when St Mary’s famously captured the cup two years ago at the Connacht GAA Centre in Bekan.
The UCD team that day were peppered with superstars. Mick Fitzsimons, Eoin Murchan, Jack McCaffrey, Stephen Coen, Jack Barry, Conor McCarthy, Paul Mannion, Colm Basquel. There’s was a serious, serious team.
That said, the St Mary’s side weren’t complete nobodies by any reckoning. Tyrone inter-county quartet of Conor Meyler, Conal McCann, Kieran McGeary and Cathal McShane jumped off the team-sheet, as did established Down star Kevin McKernan and Armagh’s Oisin O’Neill.
However, to say St Mary’s weren’t much fancied for a win would be an understatement, and conceding two goals inside the first three minutes understandably didn’t help matters for them.
They’d done the exact same in their semi-final over UCC the day before, but once again they managed to aim the shotgun away from their feet, rattling off nine points unanswered before Mannion eventually ended UCD’s 26-minute scoreless spell just before half time.
After the break, the Belfast scholars just emptied themselves, and the UCD onslaught never came. Expertly prepared by former Tyrone and Galway coach and current Down manager Paddy Tally, they tackled and harried and harassed everything across the field, and at the other end kept picking off the scores to stay nudged out in front. Little ol’ St Mary’s held off the might of the Dublin college against all odds and won by a point.
After their first, equally as momentous Sigerson victory in 1989, they had added a second title well worthy of the same reverential tones to which the original is remembered. There is now famous footage of Tally sinking to his knees in undiluted joy at the final whistle, fists clenched and looking to the heavens as the euphoria overwhelms him, before clasping his head and burying it into the ground in an attempt to wrestle the moment into reality.
“Just immense relief,” Tally expressed to Jerome Quinn as he tried to attach words to the emotion in the wake of the game. “It’s been a long journey to win one. We’ve worked extremely hard over the years.”
“We spoke about this thing of a small college not being able to compete,” team captain Conor Meyler told TG4 after the game. “850 students, 200-odd lads, we were definitely fighting against the odds. But if you kick a dog often enough it will bite back. This is a special bunch of lads.”
So to present day and another St Mary’s cohort have cut through the traffic of the early rounds to take their place in the last four. And they’ve battled to get there.
They played out a thrilling encounter with last year’s finalists NUIG in Galway that was eventually decided by a free-kick taking competition, before advancing to tomorrow’s showdown after a 0-15 to 0-13 victory over Maynooth University.
This term they have new heroes coming to the fore to lead the challenge. Derry and Slaughtneil’s Shane McGuigan has been their talisman in the forward line with big scoring tallies in both games. At midfield, they have Jarlath Og Burns, son of Armagh great Jarlath, who displays the same raw athletic power of his father and can put numbers on the scoreboard too.
Lining up in the UCD team tomorrow is the same calibre of top quality talents you’d expect from the Belfield college.
Coen and McCarthy are still in the mix, along with Fiachra Clifford, Evan O’Carroll and Liam Silke, though his involvment is doubtful due to a clash with Corofin duties. There’s also the small matter of Dublin star Con O’Callaghan to occupy the attentions of the St Marys’ defenders.
A fascinating sidestory in amongst it all is Meyler, St Mary’s heroic captain of 2017, lining out for UCD against his former alma mater. He, more than most, will know what to expect from his old college. That same kicked-down-dog spirit that will not cower in a fight. A complete disregard for the perceived form guide, and the stacked up bookies odds, and the gulf in admissions numbers, and the gilded names on the other’s team sheet.
‘The Ranch’, a tiny teacher training college nestled away in Belfast’s west side, are out to rattle the cages again.
From the Marshes to Mallow, they’ll show no fear.
Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @gaawrap.