As the race for promotion in the League of Ireland reaches its conclusion, Colm Honan analyses what’s left for UCD AFC this season.

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DESPITE the Premier League, and subsequently ‘football’ returning in the middle of August, there have actually been games happening every single weekend in Ireland throughout the summer.

Soccer fans around the country are preparing for a nail biting conclusion to the SSE Airtricity League First Division season. Limerick FC have dominated and being beaten only twice all season, they can now prepare for top-flight football after securing the title in August. Surely their aim will be to avoid a swift relegation, something they failed to do in their last venture to the top tier in 2015.

Now that the title has been wrapped up there is still an interesting race is for the valuable second and third spots. UCD and Drogheda United will likely face each other in a play-off for the right to take on the 11th placed team from the Premier Division in a two-legged winner-take-all game at the season’s end.

For the Students, everything is still to play for. Trailing in third by seven points from their promotion rivals Drogheda, they now head into the last month of the regular season facing four proverbial cup finals (due to a game in hand against Waterford) in their quest to restore their Premier Division status.

An away trip to basement team Athlone Town is the first leg of a crucial trio of games. The midlands side have been in lacklustre form all season after being crippled with financial problems. The situation got so bad that, at one stage, they were forced to sign players from local leagues on the day of a game.

UCD will be confident of collecting all three points from Lissywoolen in what is, at least on paper, an easy away win. The previous three meetings saw two wins and a draw for the Belfield outfit who scored eight goals in the process. Stranger things have happened though, especially in the League of Ireland.

A tricky tie against an in-from Shelbourne follows on the penultimate day of the season. Owen Heary’s side should provide stiff opposition and have been notoriously tricky to turn over on their home turf, providing Limerick with their toughest test so far this season. Saying that, UCD have managed to beat Shelbourne three times out of three so far this season, so the Students should feel relatively confident.

“A tricky tie follows on the penultimate day of the season with an in-form Shelbourne side are sure to provide stiff opposition…”

Shelbourne will want to finish strongly though. Even after picking up back-to-back wins earlier in the month, their mission to return to the Premier Division will have to wait until next season at this point for the side known as the “sleeping giants” of Irish football.

Ultimately, the season may hinge on a possible play-off tie with Drogheda, which is ironic as the final game of the league season is a dress rehearsal with the College heading to Hunky Dory Park. The Drogs have fallen from grace somewhat since tasting Premier Division success in 2007, compounded by trouble at the boardroom level as well as their relegation. Their misery has only been aggravated by the success of their nearest neighbours. Nonetheless, the 2016 season has seen them rejuvenated.

Experienced manager Pete Mahon put his faith in youth, and he’s reaped the rewards of that. The youngest side in both divisions (with an average age of just 22) have flourished this year, losing just twice at home all season. One of those was to runaway champions Limerick but the other was against (you guessed it) UCD in June. They currently sit in second position and will be readying themselves for their season to extend by three games. That would represent vindication for their boss’s insistence in his youthful side. It’s just up to UCD to provide the opposition.

’Perhaps a memo on the desk of John Delaney may do the trick…’’

Reaching the Premier Division, however, is not straightforward. A second play-off tie will await the winner of the original clash in a promotion-relegation bout that UCD came out on the wrong side of in 2014 against Galway United. Many First Division coaches have called for a change to the system and argued for a two-up, two-down system and an abandonment of the play-offs. Perhaps a memo on the desk of John Delaney may do the trick…

Manager Collie O’Neill is sure to be encouraged when he reflects on this season’s campaign. Although promotion will be the benchmark by which the season is judged, there have been a number of high-points. A cup run which, ended with a narrow defeat to holders Dundalk at the quarter-final stage, gave the playing staff a welcome reminder of their ability to compete with the best teams domestically. A 39th Collingwood Cup success and a Harding Cup win for the freshers side reinforced the Belfield outfits dominance on the intervarsity circuit.