The Electric Ireland Sigerson, Fitzgibbon and Higher Education Championships are unlike club and county Championships. Team composition is determined by place of learning not place of birth allowing traditional rivals to form the most unexpected of alliances. This rivalry was incredibly fierce on the 2012 DCU team that lifted the Sigerson Cup. That team featured two of the best footballers in Ireland, Dublin's Paul Flynn and Donegal's Michael Murphy. One of the players had won an All-Ireland the previous year, the other would go on to win an All-Ireland title that September. This is the story of a great team, rivalry and friendship.
Paul Flynn and Michael Murphy won a Sigerson Cup together and All-Irelands in spite of each other, but the real competition came around a table in the sequestered campus halls of DCU on a Wednesday night. "We did a Come Dine With Me kind of thing on a Wednesday", recalls Kieran Gavin, Flynn's erstwhile flatmate, with Murphy residing across the hall.
"Donie Shine went first and I went second, and we were cooking stir fries and all of this stuff. Michael went fourth, and he arrived in the door with this massive Shepherd’s Pie, we were 100% sure his mother was after cooking it!"
Having won their maiden Sigerson Cup in 2005-06, DCU went on to enjoy a golden spell which yielded three titles in six years, the first in 09-10.
Among the college's ploys to quickly gel players from disparate clubs and counties was to house them together, which Murphy recalls fondly.
Ah I loved it. All of us footballers were living in the one house. You got to live with them, cook with them. You got to know the ins and outs of how they live. That was brilliant.
We battered off one another and got through the time there together.
Along with living, cooking, and training together, Murphy and Flynn studied together: both taking PE and Biology. This naturally engendered a close friendship, although their inherent competitiveness went undiluted. "Those two lads were very competitive with each other, very competitive. Best, best friends but they were really competitive", testifies Gavin. He also confirms that the rivalry extended to fiesty jousts of Sonic and Sega All-Stars, conjuring images of some of the country's best footballers huddled around a PS3.
Michael Quinn of Longford, who played alongside both, agrees.
These are highly competitive guys. I remember once doing a tackling drill with Michael Murphy, Paul Flynn and Brian Donnelly from Louth, and my God, it was like three bullocks going at it.
That competitive nature came out in the guys; there was no lying down. And nobody was lying down after a big hit, they were straight back on their feet. Neither of them wanted to back down.
The years Flynn and Murphy spent together in college would also see the Dublin-Donegal rivalry reach its peak: DCU teammates Flynn, Murphy, Johnny Cooper, James McCarthy, Dean Rock, Eoghan O'Gara and Martin McElhinney would all feature in the now-legendary 2014 All-Ireland semifinal between the two counties. But Quinn says there never an element of the DCU training field being used as neutral ground suitable for the laying down of a marker.
"It comes back to the competitive nature of an athlete: you want to win. Okay, we’re having a race here to the 21, and I’m going to win. As for further down the line? I don’t think guys think like that. I hope not anyway! You’d be taking the heads off lads in training if that was the case!".
Neither did DCU become a kind of crucible for the trading of state secrets from respective county camps, as Murphy recalls.
You were never going to speak about massive tactical things, it was always more about training, tipping away and going to the pool together and that. Everything was just light-hearted, living with friends. What we were cooking that evening - that was the main thing.
Unsurprisingly, the friendship was parked for seventy minutes when Sunday afternoons were lengthened by the summer sun. "Both of us went hammer and tongs for our county whenever we met", says Murphy, and Gavin had a similar experience when his Westmeath side met Dublin.
I remember playing against Paul and Dublin in Croke Park. Ah, we were beaten well in the end, but during the game I was running up the pitch with the ball, and all of a sudden Paul came in and I got hit with an elbow in the chest. Picking myself up, I was thinking, ‘Jeez, there’s no friendships here!’
"It’s a typical lads thing", continues Quinn. "A shake of the head, and ‘off with you now, I’ll talk to you in a bit’. Then you get stuck into it".
Quinn readily admits the benefits Sigerson football brought to these internecine, intercounty rivalries.
You definitely learn a lot. You’re probably not sitting down, saying, ‘look at the way he solos the ball’ and so on, but it’s the mindset during training.
You see the guys at the top level, you see how consistently they train and prepare. They bring it to the fore for every training session. I don’t think there is a massive fear factor between a supposed top four or top eight in the country, they just consistently bring it at training.
Somedays, you’d have a tough day at work or at school or whatever, and you might not feel like training, but the top guys turn up and train hard, regardless.
The guys who are peaking are the guys who always train hard. There’s no real secret to it.
The competition's greatest benefit to its players is deeply simple, however. Quinn's testimony that it's his favourite spell of football since returning from the AFL is widely shared. Murphy speaks in favour of the brand of football; Quinn and Gavin of the training, almost all of it skills-based.
When training was organised by Mick Bohan, each player had two footballs each, with the 3pm start ideal to squeeze the most out of the vestigial winter sun. This, says Quinn, left Sigerson players at championship pace as the rest of their county teammates struggled to lay waste to winter excess.
In spite of having "lived in each other's pockets", as Gavin, Murphy, and Quinn all term it, one mystery lingers in Gavin's mind.
I remember Michael used to come down every week with a boot full out of fruit and veg, I couldn’t believe he’d eat this amount. He had a Skoda Octavia and it had this massive boot, and it was full of fruit and veg.
I used to say, 'how are you going to get through that in a week?'
The Electric Ireland Sigerson, Fitzgibbon and Higher Education Championships. Taking rivalries to the next level. #FirstClassRivals