Cahal McAuley summarises UCD AFC’s 2020 season, which came to a disappointing conclusion but from which many positives can be taken for Andy Myler’s young side.
UCD AFC’s season ended in a devastating play-off defeat to Longford Town but their emergence as the league’s most dangerous attacking outfit and high retention of players for next season gives fans plenty to be hopeful about when looking to the future.
After a disastrous 2019 season in the Premier Division which saw them relegated and set unwanted club records of 12 consecutive losses and a 10-1 defeat to Bohemians, UCD were attempting to dust themselves off and return to the top flight at the first time of asking.
The Students came into the season in a period of transition which saw manager Collie O’Neill replaced by Andy Myler, who began his League of Ireland career with UCD in the 1990s.
UCD made an encouraging start to the season with a 1-1 draw away to Wexford followed by a 1-0 win at home to Cobh Ramblers, leaving the Students third in the table after two games.
Any ambitions UCD had of taking early control of the title race were quickly dispelled as they suffered a humbling 5-1 defeat away at Drogheda United. The Students did not get the chance to make a quick recovery as on March 12, the league was suspended due to the emerging coronavirus pandemic in a season quite unlike any other. After a hiatus just short of five months during which the season at times seemed unlikely to resume at all, UCD reopened their account in the now shortened league format with a scoreless draw against Longford Town, a result which left the students outside the play-off spots for the first time in the season.
Myler had used the break to implement a new formation using three centre-halves and wing backs in order to be able to quickly switch between a back three and five, with the wing-backs being able to either provide more width going forward or more defensive cover, depending on the opponent. After a 3-1 win to Shamrock Rovers II and a 2-0 defeat to Bray Wanderers, the formation change seemed to be paying dividends as UCD won four of their next five league matches, scoring 19 goals in the process.
A fiery 2-1 victory over Athlone Town in which three red cards were shown was followed by a 3-0 win away to Cabinteely, marking the students first away league win in over two years. UCD gave a good account of themselves in defeat to Premier Division side Sligo Rovers in the FAI Cup second round, which stimulated a response of three league wins on the trot. This included their biggest ever league win in an 8-0 drubbing of Wexford F.C. with Colm Whelan and Yoyo Mahdy both scoring hat-tricks.
UCD’s winning run came to a disappointing end as they fell to a 3-0 defeat to Galway United in what was their first home defeat of the season. However, they bounced back with another emphatic victory, this time a 6-0 away hammering of Cobh Ramblers.
In the seven games since the resumption of the league UCD had gone from a team struggling to find the net, with three goals in their opening four games, to the league’s most dangerous attacking unit. With Mahdy scoring nine times and Whelan chipping in with seven.
The Students could not maintain this level of consistency however, as they suffered their only back-to-back defeats of the season against Drogheda United and Longford Town respectively. The defeats, both to promotion rivals, were especially difficult for Myler’s team as they had relinquished the lead on each occasion.
With their title hopes fading, UCD’s best chance of promotion was through the play-offs and they returned to winning ways with another high-scoring victory, this time a 5-2 win over Shamrock Rovers II. After a 3-1 defeat to Bray Wanderers, UCD’s third in four games, the Students were left in the play-off positions only on goal difference with three games to play. It was vital that UCD picked up full points in their next two games and they did just that with a 4-2 win over Athlone Town and all but secured their play-off spot with a 5-1 victory against fellow play-off hunters Cabinteely.
The Students secured a 2-2 draw away to Galway United in the final game of the season. Drogheda United secured the First Division title and UCD advanced to the play-offs along with Bray Wanderers, Longford Town, and Galway United.
UCD would play against Longford in their semi-final and although they had failed to beat the midlands side in two attempts, Longford had been struggling for form with only one win in their final four league games of the season and UCD would enjoy home advantage.
However, it was not to be for the Students after an absorbing encounter where Longford snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, twice coming from behind and scoring late goals in regular time and extra time to claim a 3-2 victory to condemn UCD to First Division football next season.
The feeling of such a painful defeat will still be raw for everyone involved in the UCD setup but there is plenty to be optimistic about going into the new season in February. The Students finished as the league’s top scores scoring 44 times, with Mahdy and Whelan finishing first and second in the golden boot race respectively.
After the tumultuous 2019 season UCD needed to steady the ship and rebuild and Andy Myler has done just that. If the Students can maintain their attacking prowess and at the same time tighten up at the back, UCD will certainly be one of the teams to beat next season.