Amy Eustace gives a blow by blow account of UCD’s League of Ireland campaign.
The Premier Division play-off took place last week, and it’s striking to think that any other year, UCD’s eighth place finish in the League of Ireland would have landed them in the play-off positions, facing the grim fate of relegation to the league’s second tier. A structural shake-up of the league coupled with Galway’s unseemly collapse ensured that the Students finished the league within safe distance of the danger zone. Any other year, the club could very well have gone back down to the first division with a bump. Thankfully, however, UCD survive for another season in Ireland’s top flight, and despite this year’s unusual relegation system, you can’t shake the feeling they deserve it.
It was no surprise that UCD started the season sluggishly. Having lost the likes of David and Evan McMillan, Ciaran Kilduff, Brian Shortall and numerous others from the impressive class of 2010, the new-look UCD side would undoubtedly take time to find their feet. Wins against Drogheda, title-chasing Sligo and a Dundalk team with their sights set on Europe early on suggested UCD were gathering pace – but a 7-0 loss at Derry’s Brandywell put that idea to bed. They managed a 3-0 thrashing of Galway, however following that UCD embarked on a calamitous run, with seven defeats on the bounce and heavy ones at that – scoring five goals and conceding 21 during that period.
A draw at home to Derry and a close win in Galway halted the slide, but over the summer months the dip in UCD’s league form played second fiddle to a friendly encounter with Spanish side Villarreal. Villarreal arrived at the Bowl in their pre-season, boasting top names such as Santi Cazorla, Nilmar and Joan Capdevila in their squad but UCD surprised everybody by pulling off a historic 4-3 victory against the much more experienced continental outfit.
With the Spaniards dispatched, attentions returned to the league. Although virtually safe thanks to Galway’s implosion, results had taken a turn for the worst and would not improve until September. In the league, Shamrock Rovers dealt out a 6-0 slaughter in Tallaght and Sligo were victorious at the Bowl. Meanwhile, in the FAI Cup UCD managed to force a replay with a 2-2 draw against Rovers again in Tallaght, but were at the wrong end of another 6-0 battering on the return to the Bowl and waved goodbye to the competition.
A dramatic 5-4 win against fellow strugglers Drogheda sparked an impressive upturn in UCD’s home form, despite lamentable away performances including a 4-0 defeat in Bray. UCD boasted a 100% home record in the month of September, notching up victories against Bohemians, St. Patrick’s Athletic and Dundalk.
As the league came to a close, the Bowl welcomed RTE’s cameras for a live showdown with Shamrock Rovers, for whom a win would seal the title. The Students produced a fine performance for the cameras, and the expectant Rovers supporters were forced to put the champagne on ice when a goal from Robbie Benson cancelled out Ken Oman’s opener. But an onslaught from the visitors in the final minutes, and Dean Kelly’s last-minute goal wrapped up the title a week early under Belfield’s floodlights. UCD’s last outing was a trip to Sligo, where they gave the league runners-up a run for their money, but left with a 4-2 defeat.
Indeed this was a theme of UCD’s season. They showed immense character, and played some entertaining football along the way. Later on in the year, they managed to establish the Bowl as a difficult away trip for other sides, while the youthful team impressed against the league’s big guns, asking serious questions of many of the title contenders on more than one occasion. Martin Russell will no doubt have to deal with those very teams sniffing around players such as Paul O’Conor, Dave O’Connor and Ger Barron over the winter.
But, if the winter break doesn’t harbour too many nasty surprises, the Students have reason to look forward to a bright future.