By Frank Craig
Letterkenny Institute of Technology will play their first ever Sigerson Cup game away to Athlone IT this Sunday (throw-in, 2pm).
Michael Murphy’s side tasted All-Ireland success last season in the Trench Cup, the second tier Gaelic football championship at third level.
The subsequent step up to Division 1 of the Higher Education GAA League did result in three losses but the Letterkenny side can still take plenty of positives from that trio of reversals.
In their opener against Queens University in Convoy back in October, LYIT were right in the mix up until the closing minutes. However, two late goal concessions eventually undone them there.
A week later and Murphy’s men were edged out in Belfast by Ulster University, Jordanstown by six points on a scoreline of 3-11 to 0-14.
And in their final league contest, St Mary’s, Belfast got the better of the Letterkenny students 4-9 to 0-13.
Murphy says he was content enough with how his charges fared at the tail end of 2019. But he’s warning that the Sigerson Cup is a serious step up in class from league football, even Division 1.
He told the Donegal News: “Reversing back to before the Ryan Cup, we were coming in off the back of the Trench Cup win last year. The decision there was whether we’d go Sigerson or Trench Cup again.
“Speaking to players, management and the college, we thought the best thing would be to move up to Sigerson, give it a go and give the players that got us through last year the chance to play at that level.
“It is a huge thing. And it is especially significant for Letterkenny as they hadn’t been in it before. It was definitely a worthwhile commitment. The players have really rowed in behind it.
“Yes, we knew the Ryan Cup was going to be difficult. We were playing some top sides. But what an experience it was. The margins of those losses… they might look worse than they actually were.
“From our perspective, it was still promising. A lot of the lads in the college, first years and lads that had been there other seasons, acquitted themselves quite well. But we know too the actual Sigerson Cup is a much different kettle of fish.
“We’ll need to bring something else, something different. But I can’t credit the lads enough for their application and willingness to learn, to improve. We’re all just looking forward to the weekend now.”
Sunday’s opponents Athlone also suffered three league defeats but found the going much tougher in terms of the scoreline from those respective outings.
First night out, Sligo IT had 10 points to spare over the Westmeath scholars. And that was as good as it got for them.
Next up was a 2-24 to 2-7 away drubbing at the hands of Maynooth University. Athlone’s league campaign came to a close with another heavy hammering, this time courtesy of NUI Galway on a difference of 2-19 to 0-5.
Murphy though is warning his players they’d be foolish in the extreme to read anything into what transpired in the lead-up to the weekend.
The serious business, the Donegal captain insists, starts now for LYIT.
“The nature of Sigerson, and having played it myself for a number of years, it’s a unique competition and it’s also a unique brand of football.
“Home advantage counts for a huge amount. Your home school and your home crowd get right behind you. The pitch tends to be tight. There’s usually a rope around it and you get some really good noise. It can lead to a frantic type of atmosphere. That all leans towards the home side. But we’re preparing for that. We need to find a level of intensity that counters that.
“From our point of view, we’re just trying to read up on their panel and get match reports from their Ryan Cup games. Things can change drastically from one side of Christmas to the other.
“What we’ve made clear to the lads is that we have to for the most part just really concentrate on ourselves.”
Bar four, the LYIT squad is constructed entirely of Donegal players. As well as the obvious standouts like senior county panellists Peadar Mogan, Eoghan McGettigan, Michael Langan and Michael Lynch, there are also some very familiar club names involved.
There is no doubt that LYIT’s involvement in the top tier third level competition will make Letterkenny an even more attractive place to study in the coming years.
“Definitely, you want to spread your wings as far and as wide as possible,” said Murphy on future recruitment. “We’ve four in the panel from outside the county at the moment. We’d love to grow that.
“It is predominantly a Donegal contingent. And that’s great from a Donegal point of view. But the flip side is that we want to attract even more lads from outside of the county.
“That helps bring different styles, different opinions and that can only be a good thing. It’s great to have variety as that way we keep learning and keep pushing forward.”
Murphy is of course also currently busy with Donegal as Declan Bonner’s men look forward to the start of the NFL and their return to Division 1. They open with a massive home clash against Mayo on Saturday, January 25.
But the Glenswilly man admits that he continues to enjoy the experience of managing and coaching this young group of footballers.
“I’ve really enjoyed the experience and I’m very grateful for the opportunity along side the likes of Francie (Friel) and Aidy (Glackin). For me, it’s just trying to formulate between the managing and coaching side of things as they’re both two very different roles.
“The enjoyable part is getting out there and coaching. But the lads really are making that job a lot easier. It’s going to be interesting now to see exactly where we’re at over the next number of weeks.”
LYIT SQUAD: Liam Jackson (St Mary’s, Louth), Steve McDaid (Termon), Caolan Gallagher (Termon), Liam Kelly (St Michael’s), Sean Neary (Bonniconlon, Mayo), Caomhin Marley (Glenswilly), Adam McElwaine (Termon), Matthew Duffy (Bundoran), Peadar Mogan (St Nauls), Paddy Dolan (St Mary’s, Convoy), Bryan McNamee (St Mary’s, Convoy), Eoghan McGettigan (Naomh Conaill), Shay Doherty (Letterkenny Gaels), Darragh Black (Milford), John Campbell (Buncrana), Ryan McFadden (Termon), Daniel Brennan (St Nauls), Emmet Lynch (St Eunan’s), Nathan Fowell (Termon), Christian Bonner (Na Rossa), Niall Meegan (Donaghmoyne, Monaghan), Mark McAteer (Fanad), Michael Lynch (Naomh Colmcille), Mark Mooney (Tyholland (Monaghan), Michael Langan (St Michael’s), Eoin McGing (Killybegs), Bernard McGettigan (Fanad), Mark McAteer (Glenswilly).