The 14th of September 2018 will go down in the annals of UCD AFC’s proud League of Ireland history. Led by the tactically astute Collie O’Neill, the team’s result against Finn Harps means a team comprised of UCD Students will once more represent their university in the top-tier of domestic football in Ireland.
Relegated to the much-maligned First Division in 2014 after playoff heartbreak against Galway United, ‘the Students’, as they are constantly referred to as in the Irish media, had to rebuild in one of the most unforgiving leagues European football has to offer.
Little to no media coverage, paltry crowds and some far-from ideal playing surfaces contribute to an atmosphere of isolation and unknowns. As it is, there is very little coverage from the mainstream media outlets in terms of the Premier Division so perhaps “College” knew exactly what they were in for on their return to the so-called “Graveyard Division” in 2015.
However, in keeping with their strong and passionate footballing philosophies, which has seen the Belfield boys earn plenty of plaudits under many managers, Collie O’Neill refused to deviate from these proud footballing principles.
On first glance, the 2015 season was potentially UCD’s best chance to get out of the First Division during their four-year spell. Coupled with a fairy-tale European odyssey which saw them stun now Europa League group stage participants Dudelange, it really looked like it could have been a year to remember for O’Neill in his first year of senior management.
The end of the Europa League adventure saw their league form improve as they went on an imperious five-game winning run. But it wasn’t to be as the now defunct Wexford Youths landed an incredible league title. All hope was not lost however with the playoffs, but the season came to a crashing halt when a determined Finn Harps came to town under the guise of the much-loved Ollie Horgan to close the curtain on a memorable, yet heartbreaking season for the boys in sky blue.
2016 came and went with ‘the Students’ once again faltering with heavy inconsistencies as the unlikely lads from Cobh Ramblers pipped the Belfield side to a Playoff berth come the seasons end. Limerick ran away with the First Division crown two months before the season officially finished in October. The completion of the 2016 season presented UCD AFC with a major dilemma. Priding itself on providing a fantastic atmosphere with studies and football, it appeared as if the dressing room was fractured on campus.
There were two major groups in the UCD dressing room at the time, the more experienced players not in college such as Jason Byrne and Kieran Marty Waters, and those firmly in the university environment such as Gary O’Neill and Jason McClelland. While youth and experience are a match *almost* made in heaven, Collie O’Neill and his supervisor-in-chief, Diarmuid McNally pressed ahead with an all-scholarship model to nurture talent in a learning environment.
Many departed to near neighbours Cabinteely while the core of a potentially title-winning squad stayed on campus. This idea proved to be a masterstroke from those in power at UCD AFC.
The atmosphere around the squad improved almost dramatically. With all the players in a very similar age cohort and living on the Belfield campus, the bond and unity among the group improved almost tenfold. There was no egos, or “wolves” as manager Collie O’Neill described them, just a seriously honest and dedicated group of athletes who were more than determined to prove their doubters wrong.
2017 was the start of something special in the dressing room of UCD AFC. While they eventually fell away to the unrelenting Waterford FC, there was plenty of positives to take from their first year back in the exclusively scholarship model.
Greg Sloggett, Gary O’Neill and Timmy Molloy, all scholarship students, dictated the middle of the park, gaining the tag of the ‘Holy Trinity’ while the likes of Josh Collins and Georgie Kelly (now of Dundalk FC) stood up and were counted in an extremely positive year for ‘the Students’.
Coupled with a strong showing in the Collingwood Cup in February of that year, it was looking like, from the outside at least, that the perfect storm was brewing under wraps and almost divine secrecy at the Bowl.
The 2017/18 academic year was really over when everything bubbled towards the surface at the UCD Bowl. A Colleges and Universities Football League (CUFL) title was secured alongside retaining the Collingwood Cup (their 47th overall). With an-all conquering third level side, the real acid test was yet to come in the form of the 2018 First Division. Billed as the most competitive second-tier in decades, UCD AFC began the season like a house on fire. Dispatching of Shelbourne and Finn Harps early on in the season set the tone for a massive year with the ‘Boys in Sky Blue’.
The mid-season break came and left with Collie O’Neill’s side sitting pretty at the top of the plie seven points clear but a rocky few weeks was to come. After the sobering 5-1 home defeat to Longford Town, talismanic Georgie Kelly left for pastures new at Dundalk.
O’Neill now had a dilemma on his hands. However, sticking to his principles, the Drogheda native trusted his young side to get the job done, which they so emphatically did on that fateful night at home to Finn Harps. In a game that will go down in the annals of UCD AFC’s proud history, the ‘nearly’ boys became men who finally arrived, after years of heartbreak and near-misses.
It will be fascinating to see how UCD AFC adapt to the obvious step up in standard in the top tier of Irish football, with player burnout a potential issue. Rest assured however, after a spell in the wilderness, UCD AFC are on the rise once more.