The University College Dublin (UCD) Association Football Club (AFC) have come out of lockdown looking better than they did heading into it, in the first two weeks since the return of soccer. Since the Airtricity League First Division season returned on the 31st of July, UCD were held to a goalless draw first game back in the Belfield Bowl against Longford Town, before taking a 3-1 victory against Shamrock Rovers II.
UCD took an early 2-0 lead against Rovers in the first 14 minutes, with goals from Colm Whelan and Jack Keaney, while the remainder of the half saw nothing more than a number of yellow cards dished out to both sides. The Rovers came back within the first two minutes of the second half, through the boot of Thomas Oluwa, however it was a short-lived comeback, as Liam Kerrigan sealed the game for the hosts with a goal a short time later.
UCD’s Director of Football, Diarmuid McNally, has been impressed with the players’ fitness levels after the lockdown, and said that it looks as if they haven’t missed any football at all. “What I am surprised about is that [the players] obviously weren’t able to play much football, but they were actually sharper from a football point of view.”
“To be fair to the players, they kept themselves in really good condition and we continued to do the individual programmes. But when they came back to training fitness levels were really very good,” said McNally. “
“Looking at each other, there was nobody that took an easy three months off, we were all in great shape coming back,” said UCD’s Captain, Jack Keaney. “I think that just gave us more confidence to know that we will be as fit as anybody out there.”
For Keaney, the past two weeks have helped build confidence for the season ahead. “In the Longford game I felt that we were a little bit unlucky, I thought we played really well and passed the ball really well but were unfortunate to not come away with something,” he said. “Last week we maybe didn’t pass the ball as well, but we took our chances when they came and that’s the main thing.”
McNally acknowledged that the delay in the season has likely had a positive effect on the players’ mindsets, as they have already finished their exams and can now focus fully on their football. In a regular season, the UCD team often struggles during May and June on the pitch as their players are more focused on their exams and assignments, however, due to the Covid-19 lockdown, that troubled period for UCD was missed and the players can now give their full efforts to the season, which McNally states is the reason that they have done so well coming out of lockdown.
However, UCD are not the only team to have come out of the lockdown looking like they haven’t missed a beat. Wexford Youths came out with a 3-1 victory over Athlone Town in their first match back, while Bray and Drogheda United have also pulled out some impressive victories since returning to action.
“I think fitness levels across the board have been okay,” said McNally. “Longford might have been a little bit rusty; they would have been one of the favourites, but they won last week so they are back on track.”
“Wexford are the one team [that have surprised with how well they are playing]. They signed a couple of players and they have certainly improved,” said McNally. “Cabinteely have maintained their surprising start [and] Drogheda have come into a bit of form, so there’s a couple of surprise packages in the league this year… it has turned out to be a very competitive league actually.”
“Our objective at the start of the season would have been to make the playoffs, which is basically the top five… It is a shortened season; there’s only 13 games left, so it is a little bit of a sprint, that will I think play into our favour because we’ve hit the ground running,” said McNally.
“We just want to be as competitive as we can, we’ve set goals inside the group that we want to achieve and I think since we’ve come back we’ve hit those goals,” said Keaney.
UCD will travel to Wicklow this weekend to take on Bray on Friday, before returning to the UCD Bowl on Monday for their clash with Athlone Town. Attendance at both games is restricted, as national FAI and government guidelines still recommend no more that 200 people are permitted to attend outdoor gatherings.
Stephen Kisbey-Green – Co-Editor