University College Dublin (UCD) were beaten by league leaders Shelbourne 3-1 at Tolka Park. Shels had capitalised on the College dropping points in last week’s scoreless draw with Cork City, as they beat Cobh Ramblers to go two points above UCD at the summit of the league before kick off on Friday night.

Andy Myler was able to reintroduce Lorcan Healy and Liam Kerrigan, two welcome returns after the performance against Cork, to his starting XI whilst former Leinster Senior League player Michael McHugh earned his first start of the season.

The Reds poached the Students’ top goalscorer last season, Yoyo Mahdy, in the most recent transfer window, with Ian Morris hoping that Mahdy’s goals will contribute to his side’s push for promotion after last season’s disappointing relegation from the top flight. Within the first minute, the former UCD man nearly put his new side in front with a speculative cross into the corridor of uncertainty which was ultimately deflected onto the post.

UCD were undoubtedly on the back foot in the opening ten minutes of proceedings with Shelbourne showing why they have accumulated the most points so far this season. However, Myler’s side did well to keep the Reds at bay and chances to a minimum.

On 16 minutes, Healy made an excellent stop to deny Ryan Brennan who acrobatically latched onto a Eoin Farrell cross from the right wing. It was by the closest either side came to scoring in a cagey first 20 minutes. The hosts gained momentum from the chance and continued to probe in the UCD half.

Just after the 20 minute mark, an inch perfect delivery from a Kevin O’Connor free kick fed the unlikely goalscorer in right back John Ross Wilson at the back post for the hosts. Shels doubled their lead a few minutes later when O’Connor whipped in another free kick, this time finding the on-running Ryan Brennan who headed past Healy.

UCD Cross Header
UCD’s Jack Keaney defends a cross kick with a well-timed header against St Patrick’s Athletic. Photo: Stephen Kisbey-Green

It was also a free kick which created the Students’ first chance of the tie after Kerrigan’s set piece reached Harvey O’Brien who narrowly struck it over Brendan Clarke’s crossbar. In their brief spells on top in the first half, it did appear that any threat would be through Kerrigan; however, too often the striker was isolated up front and began to run into dead-ends in the hope of using his pace and power to force his way through the Shelbourne defence. It was obvious that his strike partner Colm Whelan would have to come into the game more, who showed his quality in glimpses but too few and far between, if the College were to cause any real problems.

Shelbourne’s lead was halved less than five minutes before half time after Evan Weir  took inspiration from his opposition counterpart O’Connor and whipped in a dangerous ball from a wide free kick. After Shels failed to clear their lines the ball fell to O’Brien who got his second goal of the season.

The UCD comeback didn’t last for long, though, as O’Connor collected a hat-trick of assists when his corner was headed in by Brennan. Celebrations were muted at Tolka as Brennan and ‘keeper Healy required immediate assistance for head injuries. Luckily they both appeared to have recovered as the sides went in for the interval with Shelbourne 3-1 ahead in an action packed half.

Sam Todd, captain of the Students in Jack Keaney’s absence, had his heart in his mouth for a second when referee Colfer reached for his back pocket after Todd miss-timed a tackle on Farrell on the edge of the box. In the end he opted for a yellow card for the skipper, a decision which was received with little backlash from the Shels bench and players usually a sign of a right decision.

UCD definitely upped it a gear after the break and they began to dominate possession. An early goal in the second half  would be key for the College if they were to mount a credible comeback, but despite the increasing amount of ball, they failed to really test Clarke in the Shelbourne goal.

Brian McMannus and JJ Lunney got the better of the UCD midfield throughout the game. Paul Doyle was largely ineffective in his usual advanced number 10 position and swapped with Dara Keane to play deeper in an attempt to find more time on the ball.

The closest the Students came to reducing the deficit up to the 75th minute was an Evan Weir free kick from 35 yards which initially looked promising but was comfortable for Clarke in the end.

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Myler made an array of substitutions as the game went on, but none of his introductions managed to make a real impact on the affair. The Students didn’t give up fighting as they huffed and puffed without posing a threat to the hosts until the final whistle. It was a professional second half from Shels as they held onto what they had without any real intention of extending their lead. The focus was on defending and  ensuring they eliminated any chance of UCD coming back into the game.

Ian Morris will be delighted with tonight’s result as it keeps his side first in the division and five points clear of the College in second. Shels are now the only unbeaten side in both divisions and have done no harm to their promotion hopes in the opening period of the season.

UCD will be hoping to bounce back next week to regain their winning momentum. A trip to Athlone is in store for Myler’s side who will be no pushovers as they held the Students to a draw in the opening game of the season at the Bowl.

UCD: Lorcan Healy; Michael McHugh (Lennon 70’), Harvey O’Brien, Sam Todd (c), Evan Weir, Mark Dignam (Osam 70’), Sean Brennan (Verdon 72’), Dara Keane, Paul Doyle (Higgins 80’), Colm Whelan, Liam Kerrigan.

Shelbourne: Clarke; Wilson, Gilchrist, L Byrne, K O’Connor, Farrell, Brennan, Lunney, McManus (Quinn 84’), Mahdy (Rooney 77’), M O’Connor (Poynton 60’).

Callum Buchan – Sports Writer