UCD AFC; Education, Promotion and an Overlooked History

Image Credit: Arnold Byrne https://www.sportphoto.ie/Football/UCD-2021/UCD-V-Bray-Playoff/i-zHFBQLm/A

Simon Dobey breaks down the recipe for success that has led UCD to another win and the team’s illustrious list of former team members

Under the historic lights at Dalymount Park, the home of Irish football, UCD clipped the wing of the seagulls who were flying high after a smash and grab semi final win over promotion favourites Galway United in the play off semi finals. UCD will play Waterford next in a promotion-relegation play off. The Bray game encapsulated what the students are all about:  youth, technical ability and expansive football. 

UCD were not nicknamed the students for nothing. Every player who graces the bowl is enrolled in a third level education via the highly sought after scholarship programme. Speaking to the University Observer, UCD’s Director Of Football, Diarmuid McNally said that the chance to receive a university level education is a major recruitment tool in attracting the parents of players at underage level. However, the players also see the benefits of playing for UCD, namely, through the greater chances of playing regular first team football. McNally added that were players to go to any other Irish club they would “likely be in and out of first teams.”

The number of talented players that have come through the UCD setup over the years is impressive

The number of talented players that have come through the UCD setup over the years is impressive. Liam Scales, who was transferred to Shamrock Rovers to Celtic over the summer plied his trade and earned his grade at UCD, so too did Rovers’ Neil Farrugia and Gary O’Neill. The current squad is no different. Both Colm Whelan and Liam Kerrigan have earned call ups to the Ireland U21’s team. Meanwhile, Evan Caffrey, who has footballing blood, earned his place in the Ireland U19’s squad for their European Championship qualifier against Montenegro.

Evan Caffreys footballing blood runs deep and exemplifies the often overlooked, rich history of UCD AFC. Caffreys grandfather, Theo Dunne, was a part of the Shelbourne side who faced Barcelona in 1963. In 1984 Theo Dunne would return to Tolka Park, this time as a coach for UCD. The opponents on this occasion were the competition's eventual winners, Everton, who faced the students. UCD held Everton to a scoreless draw before losing 1 nil in the return leg at Goodison Park. Theo can still be seen amongst the crowd at the bowl and he will always tell you how they nearly won it. According to Theo UCD hit the bar in the closing stages and had it gone in sent them through on away goals.

Players' careers are short and can be cut short by injuries or the trappings of the ruthlessly competitive English game

When the students played Everton in Tolka Park in 1984, it was a sell out. The crowds attracted to the bowl on any given Friday are far from sellouts. If covid 19 brought with it a sanitised atmosphere that is exactly the experience of the average bowl attendee. The pandemic led one fan to quip “sure we’ve been practicing social distancing at the bowl for years.” Diarmuid McNally says that UCD is a victim of the sporting culture and the transient nature of the student population. “Attracting crowds is a problem in the league in general.” While this is true UCD’s case is perhaps made more stark by the fact it has 30,000 students in any given year. If you include only the immediate surrounding area this is a population similar to Longford, Waterford and dwarfs the size of Ballybofey. More could certainly be done to market the club to students by advertising games on campus and as one punter put it to me recently; “make it a piss up”.

Let's put the detractors and the history aside for a moment. The model of scholarships and providing education to aspiring players is something that is becoming increasingly important. Players' careers are short and can be cut short by injuries or the trappings of the ruthlessly competitive English game. 

Stephen Finn is a man who knows his football. Stephen formerly worked for the FAI and now works with the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. He spoke to the University Observer about his role with the FAI and about the importance of education. Stephen affirmed that the way in which players are developed here “is absolutely out of kilter with every other country in Europe. We were sending our kids away ridiculously young and cutting their education short.” Stephen added that when players travelled to England, although they receive an education it is normally a sub-standard one. What’s known as a BTEC is often provided, just to tick a box, predominantly in a field like sports science. With the increasing number of youngsters choosing to play their way in Ireland, a factor in which Brexit has contributed, UCD is shining a light in what has previously been seen as a binary choice, sport or education.