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Following six weeks of intense action, lifelong bonds created and new rivalries forged, the Electric Ireland Higher Education Championships have come to a close for the 2020 season.
In the Electric Ireland Sigerson Cup, DCU Dóchas Éireann reigned supreme with their fifth title, their first since 2015. Following that, UCC were crowned the Electric Ireland Fitzgibbon Cup champions for the second year in-a-row with Tom Kingston leading them to their 40th title.
We reflect back on what has been another memorable and immensely enjoyable season of GAA in the Electric Ireland Higher Education Championships.
The DCU resurgence
It was yet another memorable season for DCU Dóchas Éireann as the hosts of this year’s Electric Ireland Feile Weekend were crowned the Sigerson Cup champions while their hurling team came agonisingly close to a place in the Fitzgibbon Cup final.
Having lost out to UCD in last year’s quarter-finals, DCU may not have been among the favourites for the 2020 Electric Ireland Sigerson Cup title and after narrowly overcoming Garda College in round one of the competition on a scoreline of 0-11 to 0-9, not many would have put them in that bracket. However, Paddy Christie’s men revived themselves from that point onwards, quickly establishing themselves as the team to beat following their comprehensive seven-goal victory over Queens University in the quarter-final.
— GAA Higher Education (@HigherEdGAA) January 19, 2020
That victory set up an all-Dublin semi-final against 2018 champions UCD who were one of the teams touted to lift the Sigerson Cup once again. However, no one could have anticipated the match that was to come in the DCU Sportsgrouds. Inspired by David Garland, Micheál Bannigan and the industrious work of Shane Carthy, the hosts stormed to a 1-15 to 0-3 victory and in the space of 10 days, went from non-runners to tournament favourites.
Christie’s men topped off the dream season when they lifted the trophy on home soil just seven days later with many of their players expected to shine for their counties this summer as a result of their performances against the top footballers in the competition.
— Pundit Arena (@PunditArena) January 29, 2020
IT Carlow rising
The IT Carlow footballers defied all the odds in 2020 by qualifying for their first-ever Electric Ireland Sigerson Cup final and they did it the hard way.
Pat Critchley’s side went into their first-round game with IT Tralee as heavy underdogs against the side led by David Clifford and coached by Kieran Donaghy but managed to come out of Tralee with a two-point win thanks to three second-half goals.
Following that, they faced another huge task in the shape of 2019 champions UCC who boasted a star-studded side that many expected to achieve back-to-back titles. However, the champions were undone by Padraig O’Toole’s double couple with Evan Lowry’s goal as the underdogs prevailed on a scoreline of 3-9 to 0-14.
In the semi-final, they showed true character as Letterkenny IT fought back from four points down late in the game to draw level only for Adam Steed’s dramatic late goal to send them into a maiden final appearance. Unfortunately, the final would end in defeat as heavy favourites and the home side, DCU came away with a seven-point win to end the footballers’ fairytale run.
— Spórt TG4 (@SportTG4) January 30, 2020
Their hurlers have suffered more than their share of disappointment in the last number of years, from losing the final in 2017, the semi-final in 2018 and the quarter-final in 2019. Yet DJ Carey and his management team brought this group of dedicated soldiers back together this year and transformed them into one of the Electric Ireland Fitzgibbon Cup’s most eye-catching outfits. Across their five games, they registered 16 goals while their defence have been ferocious and determined all season.
They hit bumps in the road along the way, from narrow escapes to injury doubts but throughout their journey, they showed an unrivalled hunger to right the wrongs from previous years and return to the decider. That same determination and ferocity was evident right to the very end. Though this latest heartbreak will sting more than the rest, it will not be long before IT Carlow are lifting their very first Electric Ireland Fitzgibbon Cup.
Letterkenny impress on the big stage
One of the big stories stemming from this year’s Electric Ireland Higher Education campaign was the performances of Letterkenny IT who qualified for the semi-finals at the first time of asking.
The 2019 Trench Cup champions, led by football star Michael Murphy, recorded wins over Athlone IT and Sligo IT to set up a semi-final meeting with IT Carlow. Unfortunately, they were hit with the sucker-punch of a last-second goal to deny them a first-ever final appearance but a huge achievement for the college in their first-ever Sigerson Cup campaign.
UCC crowned champions once again
Prior to this year’s Electric Ireland Fitzgibbon Cup semi-finals, Waterford legend and three-time winner, Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh commented: “It’s very unique to have a Fitzgibbon Cup medal, nowadays, to win one is very difficult, to win two is almost impossible.” Yet that is exactly what Tom Kingston and UCC achieved this season.
Incredible drama in the final seconds of this game as a fantastic Mark Coleman sideline sends @ucc_gaa through to the @ElectricIreland Fitzgibbon Cup Final! 🔥#FirstClassRivals pic.twitter.com/gIeFPO8UWn
— Pundit Arena (@PunditArena) February 8, 2020
At times, it looked in doubt. They narrowly overcame NUIG in the first round while in the knock-out stages, UCD and, in particular, DCU pushed them to their limit. Yet UCC’s experience and collectiveness were key in getting them over the line this year. They are blessed with leaders all over the pitch who stood up when needed. From Mark Coleman’s extraordinary sideline point in the dying seconds of the semi-final, to Shane Conway and Darragh Fitzgibbon’s brilliance in the decider.
UCC may not have been the ‘flashiest’ team in the competition this year but they played to their strengths. Their team spirit and collective trust were evident as was their sheer delight at lifting the trophy following one of the most competitive seasons in recent history.
First Class Rivals
This season served as the perfect example of GAA stars setting aside their county rivalries to feature alongside each other in their college jerseys. For UCC, we saw Tipperary’s Mark Kehoe and Cork’s Shane Kingston combining to drive their side across the line. For IT Carlow, it was Cathal Dunbar of Wexford and Liam Blanchfield of Kilkenny setting aside their intense rivalry to give their all on the college scene.
In both victory and heartbreak, it matters not where you are from but rather what jersey you are wearing and that is what forges the unbreakable bonds among these teammates. It is what makes the Electric Ireland Higher Education competitions so unique and unforgettable. In both the National League and provincial championships, the college players will soon return to their county colours and normal service will resume. But while they will remain rivals on the field, thanks to the college competitions, these players will be forever united off of it.
“It’s a [college] jersey, whether you win or lose, playing with or against, that is a bond that nobody will ever break”.
Electric Ireland’s Sigerson, Fitzgibbon and Higher Education Championship campaign, FirstClassRivals, showcases the unique trait of these historic GAA competitions that sees unexpected alliances form when fierce county rivals put aside their differences to play together, challenge together, and win together.