With a number of ex-League of Ireland players in the Irish international squad, Colm Honan asks why don’t more universities compete at the highest level of Irish club football.

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IN what has been an outstanding summer for Irish football in general, the transfer of youngster Dylan Watts to English champions Leicester City was further confirmation that UCD has established itself as a nursery for young footballers to develop and learn their trade.

Watts is not the only graduate from UCD’s football academy to have secured a transfer across the water. Paul Corry joined Sheffield Wednesday in 2012 while Conor Sammon (now at Hearts in the SPFL) enjoyed a career with Wigan Athletic in the Premier League and proved to be a loyal servant of Giovanni Trappatoni towards the end of his stint as Republic of Ireland manager, with the UCD graduate earning nine caps.

 “Far too much Irish footballing talent has been lost due to the eagerness of teenagers to make the move to England at a young age.”

Central to the colleges’ conveyer belt over the past decade has been recognising the link between academic and sporting excellence. Robbie Benson, who has forged a successful career with Dundalk, cited his Masters degree in Actuarial Science as the primary reason for remaining with the Belfield side for five years. Dave McMillan, another Dundalk star, studied Architecture. Between them, they’ve scored all of Dundalk goals bar one in the historic Europa League campaign so far.

Indeed, there were six UCD graduates in the Dundalk squad that travelled to AZ Alkamaar last week. The scholarship scheme also convinced Corry to turn down a move to Burnley and instead to complete his Commerce degree before making the move to England.

The Ad Astra programme allows the club to attract top-level talent from around the country whilst also offering players a chance to enhance their future career opportunities if the tumultuous world of professional football does not go their way.

The advent of the SSE Airtricity Under-19 and, more recently, Under-17 leagues has given young players a chance to enter an elite player development pathway without diving head first into the uncertain and cut-throat environment of a Premier League academy.

Far too much Irish footballing talent has been lost due to the eagerness of teenagers to make the move to England at a young age. Many return after a short period of time with little education and a disillusionment with the game. Perhaps a more settled approach to player development will see more future Irish internationals akin to Séamus Coleman, Stephen Ward, Shane Long, and Wes Hoolahan, all of whom plied their trade in the League of Ireland, before earning a move to English football.

While UCD are currently the only college to put forward a team at the top level of football in Ireland, there are big strides being made elsewhere around the country’s colleges. Dundalk IT’s main soccer side has benefitted hugely from the success of the football club in the town. DKIT offer seven football scholarships and their top team is being coached by four-time League winner and current Dundalk captain Stephen O’Donnell.

“Indeed, there were six UCD graduates in the Dundalk squad that travelled to AZ Alkamaar last week.”

NUI Maynooth have eight football scholarships per year and have a link with St. Patrick’s Athletic, with current starters like goalkeeper Conor O’Malley graduating from the college before heading to the league.

Admittedly, the risks are big for the colleges. Having to fund trips to the likes of Cobh, Waterford or Longford could prove quite expensive every second week, particularly when you add it to the League of Ireland entry fee of €19,000. As big and costly as those risks may be, some would say the rewards are greater and point to UCD as a shining example. An historic European campaign of their own last season brought in almost €400,000 to the club that has produced the likes of Sammon, Benson, Kevin Moran, and Jason Sherlock (yes, really) amongst others.

Collingwood Cup weeks can sometimes require players to have five matches in five days and as McMillan or Benson have testified in the Sun, that really hardens you as a player.
Football in UCD is in a good health. With three teams competing in the Leinster Senior League — one of the most competitive amateur competitions in the country — platforms for players of all abilities are in place. This is the essence of a football club within a college, especially a college the size of UCD.

The promotion of the game is further helped by the AIB Super League which contains up to 58 teams made up mostly of friends, classmates and colleagues. The outlook is bright for UCD AFC and the game in general in Belfield, but there’s still a lot left to do in order to bring Premier Division football back to the bowl in 2017.