Triumph and Tribulations – the story of UCD AFC’s relegation to the First Division

Andrew Dempsey looks back on UCD AFC’s challenging return to the top-flight with (now former) goalkeeper and Irish under-21 international Conor Kearns.

Friday the 18th of October. That was the date UCD were condemned to a First Division return after a challenging year in the top-flight. However, their fate was all but sealed before then with the defeat away to Cork City the week’s previous.

It was a year of challenges, with both moments of brilliance and difficulty. A 10-1 defeat, with a manager departure just days after certainly did not aid the cause, as a string of player departures eventually took its toll on a squad bereft of experience. “It was disappointing,” (former) goalkeeper and Republic of Ireland under-21 international Conor Kearns told the University Observer. “We didn’t pick up as many points at the start of the season as we should have with the squad we had. As it happens with UCD, that crop of players came to the end of their cycle. They left, and we started a new season halfway through with, what was, not because of the quality of players, a makeshift team. There were highpoints definitely, but we just lacked the real clinical punch in games and through the season to keep us alive. And I don’t think we can have any complaints as to where we finished.

“First game (away to Derry City), I don’t know if it was the quality of player or not. It was just a whole new environment. We went a goal down relatively early in that game and we got back into it, played really well then, the second goal happened. It was a fairly fluke goal, I think I scored an own-goal, but we played well. After the game we weren’t down, we really enjoyed the experience. Last season, we would’ve been competing on a fairly level playing field in terms of hours on the training pitch with the part-time teams in the First Division. As much as the educational pathway was brilliant, it brought its own challenges.

“We were already a step behind in that sense. We were already a step behind to chase that level of intensity of performance. As the season went on, and as things went on and things got tougher in college that gap was never going to be bridged. But that was accepted at the start of the year but over the course of the year we just didn’t realise the toll it would take.”

While there was heavy defeats, it certainly was not all doom and gloom for the Students. At one stage, there were three players from the club called up to Stephen Kenny’s Irish under-21 squad – with Kearns one of the three along with Liam Scales and Neil Farrugia (now of Shamrock Rovers).

“Personally, it’s nice to get a call-up. At any point, it’s nice to step up to that. At the time we were part-time footballers, actually amateur at the time and were able to hold our own. You saw that with Liamo (Liam Scales) in the Italy game. I certainly didn’t feel out of place in the camp so that was a nice boost and it shows the club is still doing things in the right way in producing players in the right manner.”

After a run of 11 straight league defeats, along with their captain and leader Gary O’Neill moving onto pastures new – the Students looked doomed. But then, of course there was an unbeaten run of three games, which saw a heavily unfancied UCD defeat both Finn Harps and Bohemians.

“That was a bit of a whirlwind time for me personally. I certainly felt I had a purple patch of form. I had three clean sheets in a row, went over 300 minutes without conceding and I felt really good. I then got slapped with a seven game ban and then you had Liam Scales wrapped up in a mad transfer fiasco. Then Evan Osam who was already out for the season was joined by Josh Collins. So then, you are missing four of the five players who would be playing in the backline. It’s hard to manage that at any point and the first game you have after that is Shamrock Rovers away.”

However, no further league wins arrived – which all but consigned the Students to their fate – with a return to the First Division in waiting for 2020.

“It was never going to be easy, ever. It looked like there was going to be an upturn, but it wasn’t to be I don’t think but then that’s football. It’s going to be no surprise that the Bohs game was a highpoint. It was the third of three great results and another stage where we felt we could keep ourselves up. It wasn’t all doom and gloom. there was highpoints just not enough unfortunately.

“Now we have the likes of Josh Collins who won the First Division and myself so we have a wealth of experience, but I think more importantly we can steady the ship during the off-season with the college football. The ship was never steady this season. once the first transfer went it was just hairy.

“There were moments when players we never really saw before were in the team. I blinked and I was one of the oldest players in the squad. I was a pup and then I was the most experienced player there. The maddest one was when Liam (Scales) was back from his transfer ban, he was starting with five players we never played with before. He was only gone for three weeks. So, now we can steady the ship and get a bond together and a team chemistry. Picking up results in the college season is important and not as easy as some perceive it to be. There’s certainly a gap to fill and hopefully with this new crop of players we can build something.”