Pa Ranahan: Opportunity to play 3rd Level GAA too good to turn down

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ON a wet and cold evening in late October 2009, I found myself in a dressing-room in Mallow GAA complex, feeling a bit out of place. The week previous I had answered a call from a strange number. It was Ger O’Sullivan, the Cork man who was over the Munster Interprovincial Football team. He asked me to come to training the following week, and of course I jumped at the chance.

But as I put on my boots in Mallow that evening and quickly scanned the room, I saw the majority of the players who I had watched compete in the All Ireland final a month previous. I wondered had I made the right call. And when I went out onto the pitch, for the first few minutes I questioned whether I could even execute the most basic skills, like soloing the ball!

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Mad what the mind can do to you.

After a while though, all that doubt had disappeared. It wasn’t that I had started shooting the lights out or anything. More that I could see up close that these lads weren’t superhuman (although I have never seen anyone strike a ball quite like Colm O’Neill!). They did the basics very well and at a fast pace, but when the pressure came on, they made mistakes just like anyone else.

It was more about the unyielding confidence they had in their own ability. And you couldn’t help but feed off it when in that environment.

It was my first time getting to mix with high level players from other counties, and it gave me a lot of confidence as a player. In hindsight, it is a pity I waited until 26 to gain that experience.

Munster GAA Football Senior Football Championship Final, 5/7/2009
Cork vs Limerick
Cork’s Paul Kerrigan and Patrick Ranahan of Limerick
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

In a lot of ways, it was my own fault. Third Level GAA is obviously a huge opportunity in that regard, an opportunity I didn’t really make use of. I flirted with the idea of playing Freshers when I started in UL, but living at home in first year wasn’t conducive to training etc. A poor excuse. The fact I was from Limerick probably didn’t help my case either in the eyes of the coaches but again, another poor excuse. That shouldn’t have been something that I used as a crutch.

Seanie Buckley, who played Sigerson Football with Garda College, and has been involved in both UL and LIT Football teams in a coaching capacity in recent years, put it best.

“Being from Limerick, you will likely have to earn the respect of management and other players. It is this adversity that will either make the Limerick footballer go into his shell or they will thrive in the face of this challenge”.

He feels that players who wish to develop as footballers need to see college football for the steppingstone that it is. “Get involved from the start. Compare footballing notes with your teammates, who will end up being your college friends. This will provoke a curiosity about what your peers from other counties are doing, and what more you can be doing”.

Oola’s John O’Grady has been manager of the UL Fresher Footballers for the last four years. He has seen first-hand the efforts that the college put in to promoting the game, and the benefits that players themselves can gain from it. “Seeing the small things the top players concentrate on – attitude and effort in training, willingness to learn and a desire to be better – is fantastic exposure for lads”.

These characteristics don’t require that “natural talent” that is so often used as the excuse as to why the lesser lights don’t shine, but until you experience this up close you tend not to believe it.

You need only look at the make up of the current Limerick Senior hurling panel to see the importance of Third Level GAA, with Fitzgibbon medals aplenty, or at the very least Fitzgibbon playing experience.

The standard is at the highest level. It certainly is a help that the three local third level institutions all compete in top tier hurling competitions, allowing a wider spread of Limerick players the opportunity to play at the highest level. But it is also true that those players make the most of that opportunity themselves.

UL as a Gaelic Football force have come on leaps and bounds in the last decade, but Mary Immaculate and LIT continue to lag a bit behind. That isn’t to say the players aren’t there. Mary I won the Trench Cup as recently as 2018, and LIT’s link with their Thurles campus should provide the base for much more competitive Gaelic Football sides.

That (in)famous word “tradition” is often put forward as the reason, but Mary I – a college who only made their intervarsity senior hurling debut in 1998 – won the blue riband competition in 2016. And to show it was no fluke, they retained the cup in 2017! Tradition indeed.

Obviously it isn’t a prerequisite for anyone to have attended college in order to achieve great moments in their chosen sport. Far from it. There are plenty success stories without third level degrees.

But being in an environment which offers that opportunity and not availing of it is a mistake in my opinion. No matter if it’s Sigerson or Trench, Freshers or Intermediate, there are coaches and players to learn from. That aside, it still comes back to the individual themselves.

As Seanie believes, “Whatever college you are in, there will be quality in the teams. Learn from it. If the team/college are not strong, see it as an opportunity to become a leader”. It is what you make of it. Leave any hang ups at the door and have confidence in your ability.

Have pride in your origins, but don’t let the answer to the question “Where are you from?” get in the way of “Where do you want to get to?”.

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