With the end of the season in sight, Gordon O’Callaghan talks to UCD AFC manager, Martin Russell

At the beginning of the 2011 season, many pundits predicted that Martin Russell’s young side would struggle to retain their Premier Division status, having lost thirteen first team players from last season. Russell set about rebuilding the squad after a successful return to the top flight, and comfortably guided the Students to safety.

Having achieved their primary goal of survival at the expense of Galway United, the Students have turned the Bowl into something of a fortress, winning their last five home games. Russell is delighted to have avoided the drop, especially considering the relative riches of other clubs.

“I am glad that we still have our Premier Division spot so that any young aspiring player who wishes to pursue his football aspirations alongside an academic pathway can still look to UCD AFC as the ideal platform to do so … When you consider the resources of the other clubs in recruiting more established squads, our young group have managed to make sure that we are still a Premier Division side and that’s great.”

The UCD manager is content with the college set-up of education and football, but feels the team doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Small attendances at matches, particularly during the summer when there are fewer students around campus, and the fact that UCD were one of the only Premier Division teams not to be given a televised game, have a big effect on the club’s income.

“I think most people who understand the football scene here realise what good work the club achieves with its programme, combining top class football with a first class education. I don’t think that we get enough support to help our programme grow and this is down to many factors, like sponsorship of scholarships, gates and TV exposure.”

The job of a football manager is never an easy one, and as manager of UCD, Russell has his own unique issues. While he admits that his job is largely the same as other managers in the league, there are some differences; “Obviously the development philosophy that is the ethos of the club means that I work with young players who are learning to mix it with the big boys. We have to deal with this in terms of allowing them more time to develop. Also our net in which we attract players is a smaller one than other clubs: we ideally recruit players who also value an education, other clubs don’t tend to care to what players do as long they do well in football. So they have a bigger pool to collect from.”

As is the case with all clubs in the Airtricity League, it is hard to predict what will happen between this season and next, but the migration of players is all but a guarantee, with Chris Lyons and Hugh Douglas linking up with the squad for next season.

“Off-season always sees the movement of players, and that can be difficult to predict,” Russell says. “We will hopefully retain the core of this squad, but as has happened in previous seasons, we are vulnerable to losing some players who are offered more attractive terms elsewhere.”

Robbie Creevy has left the squad to spend a year abroad, but Russell is hoping that the likes of David O’Connor, Samir Belhout, Sean Russell and Robbie Benson will be able to form the core of the UCD side over the coming seasons.

“Those players mentioned along with the rest of the signed players will all have the opportunity that UCD AFC provides. The more experience they get at the highest possible level should benefit them, but critically they must continue to commit in doing their best in training and games to continue any real development.”

Russell hopes to use this season as a building block for a higher league position next year, as well as improve the quality of play.

“The aim for next season is to improve on our final league position, and play an even more entertaining brand of football that can also be competitive in all competitions.”

After a solid season from the Students, which even saw them overcome Villarreal in a friendly, hopes are high around the Bowl for an even better 2012.