UCD kicked off their preparations for the 2017 League of Ireland season with an underwhelming pre-season 4-1 loss away to Shamrock Rovers, with 3 goals from the Tallaght side in a ten minute second half flurry taking the game away from UCD. While this may be a disappointing loss to start the pre-season campaign it is certainly not an indicator of how they will fare in the first division.
The students will be hoping to learn from their heart-breaking 2016 season as they finished in 4th place after a 2-1 loss to Drogheda United on the final day of the season, a spot off the promotion playoff spots. This allowed the Louth natives to progress to the promotion/relegation playoff at the expense of Collie O’Neill’s side. Drogheda went on to defeat Wexford Youths and earn themselves a spot in the League of Ireland Premier Division alongside runaway 2016 First Division winners Limerick FC.
UCD will be without the experienced Jason Byrne and his 221 League of Ireland goals as he moved on to Cabinteely following a season-long spell with the students that brought a certain buzz to the Belfield Bowl whenever he was on the ball. The loss of Byrne may not have a devastating effect on the pitch at UCD as the now 39-year-old scored 4 goals in just 17 appearances last season. 15 of the Students 26-man squad thus far for the 2017 season being under the age of 20. While club captain Gary O’Neill may have the necessary leadership qualities for the role as well as the experience of playing in England with Wolverhampton Wanderers he will only be 22 upon the commencement of the league campaign at the end of February. They will instead be relying on players such as defender Brian Shortall and Mark Langtry, as well as older heads like midfielder Cathal to help them get over the line this season, and earn a spot back in the Airtricity League Premier Division.
The Student’s first two games of the season come against Cabinteely and Dublin rivals Shelbourne, two handy games that give UCD a great opportunity to get their campaign off to the perfect start with two wins. Collie O’Neill’s men then make the tough trip down to face Wexford Youths, who will be determined to make an immediate return to the Premier Division following their relegation last year.
If UCD are to bring Premier Division football back to Belfield in 2018 they will need to do more than just rely on the goal-scoring prowess of Gary O’Neill as the captain fantastic finished as the First Division’s top scorer with thirteen goals. Forward Ryan Swan, in particular, will be hoping to improve on his tally from last season and find form akin to that of the 2015 season as he contributed 12 goals as UCDs top scorer. UCD fans will be hoping Swan can convert his strides and improvements as a skilful frontman into a knack for poaching goals.
An important part of improvement, too, is defence. It’s no secret that the difference between failure and achievement of season objective is the ability of the back four to keep their concentration and to mark the assigned forwards. Past seasons has seen UCD AFC ship multiple goals which has increased pressure.
There is much cause to be hopeful around Belfield this coming season, despite the lack of new faces coming into the squad thus far ahead of the new season O’Neill’s young side will feel they can certainly improve on their 4th place finish last season. Their aim will be to earn promotion back to the top-flight, and they should be hopefully of doing so. Dreams of promotion have been made all the more difficult by the FAIs decision to allow only the first placed team to earn promotion to the Premier Division in order to facilitate both leagues containing 10 teams for the 2018 season. But the students should certainly be confident in their ability to show they have learned from the heartbreak of coming so close last season and will come into this campaign one year wiser and ready to win the third First Division title in the club’s history. A new campaign with a fresh mentality and renewed drive may be just what squad and management alike require. Their first home game of the campaign begins under Friday night lights at the Belfield Bowl against Shelbourne on the 3rd of March.
Eoghan Brennan | Sports Writer