A sharp mental state is paramount in achieving success in any sport, university football being no different. The slightest advantage over your opponent can make all the difference to the end result. There are few competitions in intervarsity sport where this can make as much of a difference as the Collingwood Cup.
The premier intervarsity football tournament, and one that has been running for 100 years, the Collingwood Cup is a gruelling week of hard-fought, physical football that demands of the eventual champions to win four games in four days unless, of course, you are lucky enough to receive a bye in the first round.
The benefits of receiving a bye were seen on Thursday afternoon in Belfield, when DCU were knocked out of the competition in the semi-final stage by an NUI Galway side that had only played one match previous to it, compared to DCU’s two. On top of that, both of DCU’s previous games had been far from easy, firstly requiring penalties to get past Mary Immaculate College in the first round, and then a last-minute winner to overcome UUJ in the quarter-final.
An injury to midfielder Shane Madigan in Wednesday’s quarter-final, supplemented by a shoulder injury to captain Robbie Gaul in the semi-final, showed just how demanding the competition is.
Both were crucial blows to a DCU side that was looking to take home its first ever Collingwood title, having been denied at the semi-final stage last year as well.
Going into the week, DCU would have been quietly confident after a league campaign that saw them reach the semi-finals before being beaten by an excellent IT Carlow team. Another boost, not just for the Glasnevin university but for all teams in the competition, was the early exit of hot favourites UCD at the hands of NUI Maynooth.
In DCU’s opening game they came up against a well-drilled Mary I team that were not going to give anything away easily. There was no doubting the Dubliners were the better side on the day but they simply couldn’t add to their 1-0 lead, courtesy of a Michael Keating own goal, eventually allowing the Limerick side to snatch an equaliser and send the game into extra-time.
The extra 30 minutes of play still failed to provide a winner, forcing the dreaded penalty shootout. A total of 16 penalties were needed to separate the sides, with Ben Dale eventually denying Mary I’s Daniel Sheehy, before Gaul slotted home to give his side the victory in a game they very nearly let slip.
The Northsiders needed to step up their performance if they were to see off UUJ in the next round, a team they had already beaten 5-2 in the league earlier in the year.
The improvement that was needed certainly came and, with 30 minutes gone, Madigan fired DCU into the lead courtesy of a deflection after an excellent passing move down the left wing involving Daniel Mahon and Darren Craven.
DCU were looking very solid, especially the back four who played a disciplined line, catching the Northerners offside on a number of occasions. A notable mention must go to the centre-back partnership of Gaul and Tom Lahiff, who have impressed all season for DCU.
However, UUJ would eventually break through the defence and equalise, with the goal coming in the 86th minute courtesy of James McCabe.
After defending well for almost the entire game, the goal came as a blow to DCU, but it only helped bring out the strong character among the squad as they went up the other end of the pitch and netted a last minute winner thanks to a sublime strike from Craven.
For the semi-final, DCU were without the injured Madigan, but did benefit from the positive of having Michael Isichei back from injury.
Although the final scoreline saw DCU lose by two goals, it was far from an easy victory for NUIG. A deteriorating pitch that had seen more than enough football over the previous two days certainly didn’t help either side as they failed to create any sort of significant passing moves.
It wasn’t until right on the stroke of half-time that the deadline was broken when a long free kick launched into the box caused a stir among the DCU defence, who had lost Gaul 15 minutes previous, allowing Mikey Creane to head into the net at the back post.
Again, though, the fighting spirit of DCU came to the fore in the second-half as they dominated possession in pursuit of an equaliser. Chances came the way of Mahon, Isichei and Conor Ralph over the 45 minutes but none could convert.
As the clock ticked into injury-time, DCU pushed higher and higher up the pitch looking for the equaliser. But this only allowed NUIG’s Shane O’Rourke to latch onto a crossfield pass in the 94th minute and calmly slot the ball past Dale and into the bottom corner to send the Westerners into the final.
The loss was a hard one for DCU to take after going out in the same round last year and, as is always the case with university football, a rebuilding process must now begin to replace the players that will leave the college at the end of the year.
It was another impressive Collingwood performance from a side that had been ranked as outsiders by most commentators and bookmakers prior to the tournament, yet the loss was still a blow. The early exit of UCD had left the door open for perhaps one of the lesser sides to come through and take the title but, despite performing well, DCU ultimately couldn’t do that.
Image Credit: Ed Scannell