After a hiatus, UCD AFC will once again ply their trade in Ireland’s Premier Division, making them the only university in Europe to have a soccer team competing in their national first division. Having been promoted as First Division champions in 2018, ‘The Students’ will certainly feel they have a fighting chance of extending their sojourn at Ireland’s top table for more than one year. Add in last year’s spirited run to the FAI Cup semi-final and one could make a strong case for a top six finish being attainable. Either way, this upcoming campaign will only add to the steeped history of the club, which is far more storied than some may think.
Founded as far back as 1895 under the name of ‘Catholic University Medical School Football Club’, the club won the inaugural intervarsities competition, The Collingwood Cup, in 1914. UCD were invited to join the League of Ireland for the first time in 1922 but had to turn it down given their inability to field a team in the League of Ireland Shield that September (the Academic year didn’t commence until October). The club’s final appearance in the FAI Cup as a non-league outfit came in 1957 with a move to league football following soon after.
In 1970 the club was elected to the League of Ireland B Division and embarked on a series of landmark tours, becoming the first Irish team to play in places like India, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Jordan, Philippines, China and Australia. A second invitation to join the League of Ireland was accepted in 1979 when Cork Celtic were expelled for not having their financial affairs in order. In 1983, the hitherto amateur club turned semi-professional, and players outside of the college were now allowed to represent the first team. This is still the situation today, although in reality most of the players are either students or former students. By the end of the 1983–84 season, UCD had won a first FAI Cup, beating Shamrock Rovers 2–1 after a replay. Shamrock Rovers failed to lose another game in the competition for over three years – until they lost to UCD in 1988.
That win saw UCD qualify for the prestigious European Cup Winners Cup. The draw pitted them against Everton, then one of the leading sides in Europe. In the first leg, UCD held the Merseyside outfit to a scoreless draw. The return leg at Goodison Park almost produced a cup shock of seismic proportions, with UCD hitting legendary goalkeeper, Neville Southall’s crossbar with only minutes remaining-UCD would have progressed on away goals had they scored. Everton held on to win 1-0 and went on to win the competition as well as fending off the greatest Liverpool team ever to win the League Championship- Everton were also voted best club side in the world for that year.
‘The Students’ had to wait until 2000 for another chance to play in European competition, bowing out on away goals to Velbazhd Kyustendil in the Intertoto Cup. Our usually immaculate disciplinary record, enabled us in 2014 to become the last ever side to qualify for the Europa League through good behaviour via the UEFA Fair Play League despite having been relegated that year. That team made further history by virtue of winning a first ever European tie for the club, before bowing out in the second qualifying round. By this stage, UCD were now playing in the cavernous UCD Bowl (having moved in 2008), which has witnessed attendances of up to 3,000 people for important matches. Most recently, our underage team impressively qualified for the UEFA Youth League beating Norwegian side Molde before losing out on away goals.
Many a famous player has worn the sky blue jersey in the past including former Manchester United player, Kevin Moran; Leeds United record goalscorer Peter Lorimer; and former Ireland international, Conor Sammon. Our most famous ‘player’ though never actually donned the UCD jersey. Contrary to popular belief, Brazilian legend Socrates never, in fact, played for UCD having supposedly lined out for the reserve team whilst studying medicine in Dublin. That a former Brazilian captain could not manage to quite break into the UCD first team was hard to believe, but the man himself dispelled any doubts when announcing shortly before his untimely death in 2011 that not only had he never played for UCD but he had never set foot on Irish soil.
Historically, UCD has acted as a feeder club of sorts to Ireland’s best club sides and for the better ones, a journey to England is the reward. Many a young player has continued to avail of the university’s scholarship system before moving on. Dylan Watts’ move to then English champions Leicester was the most highly publicised, but a look at Dundalk’s double-winning side of 2018 reveals no fewer than 7 former UCD players called Oriel Park ‘home’ last year.
Among the current crop of talented young players is defender, Mark Dignam who shares the quiet optimism of many around Belfield heading into the new campaign: ‘Hopefully we can build on last season and keep playing the football we have been playing. We know there will be pressure on us as a young team and obviously, the standard is much higher but if we keep the momentum we had last year going, we should do well.’
On a personal level, Dignam will seek to establish a firm place in the first-team squad, just a year removed from the underage set-up and whilst balancing his studies as a second-year Economics & Finance student: ‘As it’s my first year out of underage football, hopefully, I can establish myself as a member of the squad. It’s a great opportunity this year as we’ll be up against the best in the country week in week out so it’s a great chance to improve.’ Despite being only 19, the left-back has already experienced numerous apogees in the sky blue jersey, most notably the games against Molde: ‘Being able to play in Europe was an amazing experience as we tested ourselves against some of the best footballers in Europe.’
With its strongest squad in years, an astute manager in Collie O’Neill, and high-performing underage teams, UCD have every chance of adding to their fabled past in the years to come. The glory days are very much back at the Belfield Bowl. We wish them well for 2019.
By Neil Stokes – Sports Writer