Very few expect UCD AFC to challenge for the League of Ireland title, or even contest for a top 6 finish, but the 2023 season has already seen the Collidge all but banished back down to the first division, and it’s only September. Defeats as large as 7-0 and losses to lower-ranked teams in the FAI Cup have characterised an embarrassing year for Andrew Meyler’s side.
Expectations for UCD were low to begin with from the outset of the season, with several key players departing in the off-period and the increased level of competition within the League of Ireland spelling out a near-impossible challenge to survive for the boys in blue.
However, it wouldn’t be fair to simply point to the performance of the players or the quality of their competition as the grounds for winning just two games in twenty-nine attempts. There’s something more structural at play here.
UCD AFC’s academy structure is looked at as one of the more consistent ones in the country, pumping out grassroots talent year-by-year. The Collidge’s academy sides often compete at the highest level of football in the country at underage level. So where does all this promise go?
If we are to take the first-team as an example, the makeup of last year’s squad is in extreme contrast to the lineup of the current season. Colm Whelan, Evan Caffrey, Sam Todd, and Tommy Lonergan are just a few of UCD’s stars of 2022 and prior to moving on from UCD in the last 16 months.
The transfers of the above-mentioned players, among several other departures from the 2022 squad, have one crucial thing in common, they have moved onto another League of Ireland setup. Selling players to rival teams is not a new concept in modern football, it can be viewed in every domestic league in the world. However, when several of the clubs that appear most frequently in your bank statements reside in the same city and league, questions should be asked.
It has become common practice for UCD AFC to field players for the first team, develop them to a league standard, then sell them within the following two seasons to the likes of Shamrock Rovers, Shelbourne, Derry City, and so on. UCD has effectively morphed into a feeder club for the big guns of Irish football. Albeit, this sort of process does not hurt the transferred players, giving the individuals the opportunity to move onto a higher quality of football, it is however, potentially damaging the reputation of UCD as a top-flight club.
It is no secret that the UCD Bowl is very often a haven for three points for the visiting side, this season has accelerated and worsened this narrative well beyond previous years. Meyler’s side has conceded seventy-six goals with another seven games for the defence to suffer through. As it stands, UCD’s current goal difference is the worst ever in the club’s history, with just fifteen goals scored in twenty-nine games. If the relegation-bound team allows just seven more goals in the remaining seven games, they will set a UCD record for the most goals conceded during a single league campaign. Considering the Belfield side has averaged 2.6 goals conceded a game, this is virtually inevitable.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, UCD’s aim is not to win the premier division, it simply does not have the resources to do so. The goal is to survive the drop each season, and if that fails, to seek promotion the following season. It became painfully obvious that the former was simply not on the cards for this team at the start of the year, failing to win any of their first ten league clashes.
So what is the solution to UCD’s declining state? This article is certainly not putting forward an answer to the problem, however, some issues must be identified. The mistake of not holding onto talented players for longer aside, there are other structural causes preventing UCD’s progression.
The exclusive nature of UCD’s recruiting of current students evidently puts a restraint on who can get involved in the club. UCD AFC holds ‘Freshers trials’ at the beginning of each academic year, in which first years can try their hand at making it into the ranks of men in blue. If a player does not impress at these once-off sessions, his chances of ever playing competitive football in UCD decrease radically.
There are currently no official trials for students past their first year in the college, inevitably leading to talented players falling through the cracks. Your only hope to feature on the books of any of UCD’s competitive sides down the line would be the extreme rarity of a call-up from the ‘Superleague’, a casual weekend league that UCD AFC labels a ‘pub league’.
Considering the vast participation in football within UCD at a casual and competitive level, and the heavy backing courtesy of the university, how could the first team lag so far behind other clubs in Belfield? The college’s rugby, Gaelic football, hurling, camogie, hockey, and athletics elite consistently represent Ireland at an international level, while remaining active members of their collegiate level.
One only has to look to the ongoing Rugby World Cup, the most recent European U23 Athletics Championships or the 2018 Women’s Hockey World Cup final, all elite competitions that featured current and former UCD students/athletes. The last male football player to play for Ireland with a UCD background is Andy Boyle, who last played for the Collidge in 2010.
The key is recruiting and retaining talent. The cited clubs allow all levels of skill the opportunity to play their discipline at a competitive level, facing opposition from outside the walls of the Belfield campus. A trick that has been missed by our football club.
Perhaps the label of feeder club is too strong, but UCD AFC’s actions prove next to no ambition for the club itself, which pertains to the all-time low attendances at Bowl games. After all, who wants to watch a first-division team thump us 5-1?
I must state, that I wish to see UCD AFC succeed as much as the next person, but the club’s internal problems have to be addressed as this UCD side is setting records, and only the wrong ones.
Dara Smith-Naughton – Sports Editor