IN the 65th minute of last Saturday’s UCC-DCU Fitzgibbon Cup semi-final, in Dublin, DCU had one last chance to take the game to extra-time and save their season.
Goalkeeper Oisin Foley was standing over a long-range free, ten metres behind his own 65-metre line. It was always going to be a low-percentage shot, but Foley was also striking into a tricky cross-wind.
All of UCC’s players were behind the ball, covering space in front of Foley, in case he went short. However, the goalkeeper played the ball a few metres to his left, to an unmarked Darren Mullen.
The Ballyhale Shamrocks man carried the sliotar a couple of yards forward, before getting off his shot right on the 65-metre line. As soon as the ball left his hurley, the breeze caught it and dragged it away from goal.
With everyone converging close to the corner flag, UCC won possession and the referee, Fergal Horgan, blew the final whistle.
“That’s what the Fitzgibbon Cup is all about,” said Nicky English in his co-commentary on the Electric Ireland live streaming service. “What a finish to that game.”
The game had been decided moments earlier, by a stroke of pure genius from Mark Coleman, who cut a sideline over the bar from just inside the 45-metre line.
The score was all the more remarkable considering that Coleman was striking straight into the teeth of that swirling breeze.
“You just couldn’t believe how tough the conditions were,” said English. “To hit it over the bar out of your hands would have been a difficult task, but Mark Coleman steps up and cuts it over the bar.
“It was an incredible way to win what was an incredible game.”
It was heart-breaking for DCU, especially on their home-patch, and given that they had led by four points late in the second-half. And UCC had edged DCU in last year’s Fitzgibbon semi-final, too.
UCC had won that game by one point after extra-time, Chris O’Leary having scored a penalty in the 82nd minute. DCU went down the field in one last attack and James Bergin had a late penalty appeal waved away by the referee.
Extra-time looked on the cards again last Saturday, until Coleman stepped up, but five of the last 13 Fitzgibbon Cup finals have been decided after extra-time. The epic UL-Mary I final in 2016 even went to a second period of extra-time.
The Fitzgibbon Cup is defined by drama, but the euphoric UCC celebration after Saturday’s win underlined how much the competition means to the players and management.
The Fitzgibbon is anachronistic. The competition hasn’t been squeezed to near-death like the Sigerson Cup, but it’s timing, especially for inter-county players, in the middle of a hectic National League schedule, makes it harder for those players to enjoy the Fitzgibbon like they could in the past.
The same windows no longer exist, but the reaction of the UCC players, subs, and management to Saturday’s win underlined just how much the Fitzgibbon still means to everyone involved.
That unbreakable spirit carried UCC through again on Saturday. UCC have been favourites from the outset of the competition, but, despite their wealth of talent and inter-county experience, they have still shown admirable resolve and courage to negotiate their way to Wednesday’s final, against IT Carlow.
In UCC’s opening group game, in January, they travelled to Galway. NUIG didn’t have anything like the same talent as UCC, but Dangan is never an easy place to go to.
Furthermore, playing under Jeff Lynskey’s system — which he used when managing Galway to three All-Ireland minor titles in four years, between 2015-18 — NUIG were well set up and hard to beat.
The Galway college seemed to have all the momentum when they got ahead in the second-half, but UCC finished strongly and edged a dogfight by two points.
Home advantage is a huge factor in the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups and having to play DCU in their back-yard, in the semi-final, was never going to be easy, especially with UCC travelling to Dublin on the day, and particularly in light of DCU’s star-studded line-up; Adrian and Darren Mullen, John Donnelly, Evan Shefflin (Kilkenny), Paddy Smyth, Rian McBride, Donal Burke, Fiontan MacGibb, Fergal Whitely (Dublin), Rory O’Connor, Damien Reck, Conor Firman (Wexford), and Brian Ryan (Limerick).
After travelling back down from Dublin on Saturday, UCC have to head back up to the same venue for tomorrow’s decider. DCU are hosting this year’s competition, but the long-running, traditional Fitzgibbon ‘weekend’, when the semi-finals and final were played within 24 hours, has been abandoned since the GAA revamped the GAA calendar in 2018.
Removing the weekend (semi-finals and final) from the competition was expected to reduce the wear-and-tear on players, especially with many of those games going to extra-time. Players no longer have to endure those marathon weekends, but the load under the current system isn’t any easier, especially with a second, long road-trip for UCC in five days.
However, UCC won’t mind, because they are in another final. And the trip home will be a very short one, if UCC can get the job done again.