University College Dublin began the home straight of their league campaign with a 1-0 win against Cork City. With just three games remaining in the First Division before the promotion playoffs, it was imperative for the College to get a result, against a Cork side with little to play for, to ensure the most favourable draw in the playoffs. Which will include Galway Utd, UCD, Treaty Utd and Bray Wanderers, barring a complete collapse from the latter two sides in the final few matches.
UCD went into this end of season tie with Cork looking to bounce back after a shock 2-1 defeat to Wexford FC who sit bottom of the First Division table but have seen their fortunes change for the better with the introduction of former UCD coach Ian Ryan as manager at Ferrycarrig Park. Since Ryan’s introduction results have turned around for Wexford, inspired by their young talent with the likes of Jack Moylan and Kevin McEvoy having stellar finishes to the season.
Conversely, City were looking to build on a convincing 4-0 win against Wexford last week, whilst the Students were idle due to international involvements for Colm Whelan, Liam Kerrigan and Evan Caffrey.
UCD have moved on from the 3-5-2 formation, which had become synonymous with Andy Myler’s side, in the latter part of the season seeing skipper Jack Keaney move into holding midfield from his usual role in the heart of the defence.
The College started the brighter of the two teams with Whelan and left-back Evan Osam flashing well-worked shots over the bar in the opening five minutes. However, Cork grew into the game as they pinned the Students back into their own half and had a goal ruled out for offside on 15 minutes through former Celtic midfielder Barry Coffey.
In this new-look shape for UCD, Kerrigan has found himself on the right flank rather than through the middle. It was clear that the management saw the channel ball from Harvey O’Brien in defence to an on-running Kerrigan as an opportunity to exploit the City backline as the defender attempted it twice in the opening 20 minutes.
Around the half-hour mark, Osam went down unopposed, requiring treatment which is never a good sign, especially for a player who had a bad knee injury at the beginning of the season. Osam was by no means the first player to slip on Belfield’s surface tonight, raising questions over the players’ footwear choices. Luckily, the left-back was fit to continue.
A marauding Kerrigan was chopped down by Coffey, who found himself in referee Alan Patchell’s book, ten yards outside the penalty box. The resulting free-kick from Keaney forced a stop from David Harrington, but never really looked like breaking the deadlock.
The first half looked dead set to go in honours even until the 40th minute Keaney’s headed clearance from City’s free set Kerrigan away on a blistering counter-attack who put Sean Brennan through on goal. The midfielder opted to round the goalkeeper and was brought down. Patchell pointed to the spot much to Cork’s frustrations as they felt Harrington won the ball. The league top marksman Whelan made no mistake from 12 yards as he blasted the ball into the left-hand corner, leaving the keeper no chance despite guessing the right way.
On the stroke of halftime, the College came close to doubling their lead through another counter-attack as roles were reversed from the opener when Brennan played in Kerrigan, who split open the Cork defence and found Whelan, but the striker was denied by a good stop by Harrington meaning UCD went in only one goal to the good at the interval.
City began the second half with a triple substitution seeing Dylan McGlade, Gordon Walker and Alec Byrne replace Sean Kennedy, Josh Honohan and Gearóid Morrissey, arguably more a sign that Healy sees this as a dead rubber for his side and an opportunity for players to get minutes rather than these players being hooked for poor performances.
Substitute Alec Byrne forced a great save from Lorcan Healy from close range who parried into a dangerous area, requiring a heroic clearance from Michael Gallagher to prevent an equaliser. Cork came close again 10 minutes after the restart when captain Cian Coleman’s header drifted just wide of the post from an Aarron Bolger free-kick.
The Students failed to carry over their positive momentum from the end of the opening 45 minutes into the second half as Myler’s side looked flat after the break. UCD looked to freshen things up with the introduction of Dara Keane as Adam Verdon made way after 70 minutes played.
Cork continued to probe as Crowley’s cross found topscorer, Cian Murphy, in the penalty box, but the striker’s header sailed over the woodwork with 15 minutes remaining. There were a handful of half-chances for the visitors without being able to fully exploit a below-par second-half display from the College.
A last gasp hail mary ball from Bolger found Coleman in the box who once again failed to test Healy with a header and as that chance perished so did any hopes of an equaliser for the away team with the referee blowing for full time shortly after.
A rather forgetful 90 minutes when we will look back on this season in terms of entertainment, but a massive three points nonetheless as playoff rivals Treaty and Bray dropping points in their respective matches seeing the College extend their lead in third to three points. Tough tests lie ahead for Myler’s side with trips to Treaty and Shelbourne before the bona fide promotion crunch matches begin with UCD’s sights set firmly on Premier Division.
Callum Buchan – Sports Editor