On Saturday afternoon, Conor Meyler of Tyrone raised the Sigerson Cup on behalf of his lionhearted St Mary’s team.
It may be the most remarkable and unlikely GAA story of the year. And it’s still only February. St Mary’s College won the Sigerson for only the second time, coming back from conceding two goals in the opening five minutes in both the semi final and final. On Friday they overcame a strong UCC team, and on Saturday they faced holders UCD in the Final. Despite going two goals behind a tremendous team effort saw the Ranch prevail to win by a point.
Back in 1989 Saint Mary's won their first ever Sigerson Cup. The competition was hosted at Queen's and anyone who was familiar with the Ranch knew they were strong dark horses that year. They defeated a strong UCC team in the final, having seen off hosts QUB in the semi final. It has been a long wait since.
The team featured the likes of Pascal Canavan who went on to have an impressive career with Tyrone; and future Derry all Ireland winner Seamus Downey who marked his brother Henry in the semi final. At midfield St Mary’s had Jarlath Burns, future Armagh captain and John Reihill a Fermanagh stalwart. In goals, none other than Benny Tierney, Armagh all Ireland winner. It was a team with many players on the cusp of greatness who went on to win significant honkers and represent their counties with distinction. Then they were St Mary’s players, tight night, small in numbers, big in heart. Like the current team.
The parallels with this weekend's winners are significant. The team then was managed by their own staff Derry legend Jim McKeever and Peter Finn, now head of the College.
Since 1999 the responsibility for St Mary’s Sigerson ambitions has been with Galbally man Paddy Tally, their PE lecturer. Paddy has an impressive coaching CV having worked with the Tyrone all Ireland winning team in 2003; the Down team that reached the final in 2010, and most recently was part of Brian McIver’s coaching team with Derry. But through all that time, Paddy has worked constantly with a legion of St Mary’s players.
One of the defining characteristics of the Ranch’s success has been the strength of the team. St Mary’s twice reached the Sigerson Final in the nineties, aiming to build on their 1989 success. On both occasions the team featured Peter Canavan and though the brilliant Tyrone man was in his prime and almost unmarkable, as testified by NUIG's Gary Fahey and others, the Ranch were unable to add to their Sigerson haul. Until now.
The College, which nestles on the Falls Road in West Belfast opposite the Royal Victoria Hospital, was originally a female only institution. When St Joseph’s in the City closed, the college admitted male students, although of a total of around 1100 students less than a quarter are male. The overwhelming majority are females who make themselves heard at matches with the distinctive "Cmon the Ranch etc'. A couple of years back when the College was under threat of merger, its singular GAA ethos was held up as a significant factor along with its tradition and teaching excellence.
The nature of St Mary’s is that as a teacher training college, they attract Gaelic footballers drawn to the profession. They include household names of Ulster football like Justin McMahon, Niall Morgan, Ciaran Gourley, Barry McGoldrick, CJ McGourty, Dan Gordon.
Saturday’s team was led by the indefatiguable Conor Meyler, of Omagh St Enda’s. His fitness and appetite for the game was a thing to behold. He was aided and abetted by the likes of Oisin O’Neill of Crossmaglen, fellow Tyrone men Cathal McShane and Kieran McGeary, Brian Óg McGilligan of Derry and Down veteran Kevin McKernan. But on a fantastic two days for the Ranch it was the team ethos and effort that stood them apart. Simply magnificent.