BY GERRY FARRELL
It’s a strange situation when the most famous player ever to play for your club didn’t actually do so; but then that’s the League of Ireland for you. The player in question was the louche, chain-smoking, erudite Brazilian genius Sócrates and the story went that while studying medicine at UCD (University College Dublin) he joined the College football team (UCD AFC) and played in the unremarkable surroundings of the League of Ireland B division. It’s a lovely image, a young Sócrates, maybe 20 years old playing against the reserve sides of League of Ireland teams in front of a couple of hundred spectators on a muddy pitch in Belfield, the University’s sports grounds. The only problem is it never happened. Sócrates did indeed study medicine and was a qualified Doctor but he studied in the state of Sao Paulo and not in the leafy suburbs of south Dublin.
While the concept of a University team playing league football is not unique, UCD are a bit of a quirk in Irish football. A rock of stability in the financially turbulent League of Ireland, UCD – because of their connection with Ireland’s largest university and their focus on providing sports scholarships to aspiring students – have a “business model” that has always been different from some of the more established League of Ireland clubs.
While no Brazilian philosopher-footballers have turned out for the Students there have been some well-known players who’ve donned the blue and navy of UCD. Peter Lorimer played a handful of games for them before his second spell with Leeds United while Irish international Kevin Moran also played while studying for his degree. There are other points of interest with the club; their Executive Vice President is the remarkable Josef Veselsky; a formidable table tennis player in his youth in his home city of Bratislava, he joined the Czech resistance when the Nazis invaded before relocating to Ireland in the 1940s. Even UCD’s rare forays into Europe have been of note; back in the 1984-85 Cup Winners Cup, the Students were the width of a crossbar away from knocking Everton out of a competition they would eventually win.
Then, of course, there is the “fan culture” of the club. One of the team’s most famous fans was University alumnus Dermot Morgan, better known to international audiences as Fr. Ted Crilly from Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted. In typical Morgan style, when asked why he supported UCD he is reported to have replied “because I don’t like crowds” – an apt response. UCD’s ground; the Belfield Bowl has a seated area of 1,500 and can accommodate more standing but the ground stewards are rarely troubled with capacity crowds. A couple of hundred students and alumni attending games is par for the course for UCD which is low even for the First Division where they currently reside; indeed it is not unusual for opposition supporters to outnumber home fans.
This has raised the question as to what UCD bring to the league. In terms of boisterous travelling support and match day atmosphere not a great deal, but in other areas they offer a lot. The scholarship system has offered talented young footballers the chance to play league football while pursuing further education. Though not a scholarship student, UCD’s most famous ex-player – the former Manchester United and Ireland defender Kevin Moran – has often said that delaying his move to England until after he completed his Commerce degree meant both that he was more mature when heading over and also less worried about his future, as he had his degree to fall back on. The most recent Ireland international to come through the UCD scholarship system has been Conor Sammon, (dubbed the “Sammon of College” during his stay there) who’s currently on-loan at Sheffield United from Derby County while many other League of Ireland of clubs have benefitted from UCD’s approach.
Dundalk, for example, have just won their second league title in a row and central to this latest triumph has been midfielder Ronan Finn, who won a football scholarship to UCD while one of the star performers who helped St. Patrick’s Athletic win last year’s FAI Cup was Conan Byrne, another UCD past man. UCD aren’t expected to challenge for trophies and are not reliant on generating big gates or chasing prize money, they expect their best performers like Finn and Byrne to get poached by other clubs offering decent wages which means they have always been the club to give youth a chance and to develop quality young players.
At the time of writing, UCD occupy a play-off spot in the First Division having been relegated from the Premier Division last year, yet despite this state of affairs 2015 has seen UCD secure one of the greatest financial windfalls of any League of Ireland club. The University side qualified for the Europa League this year by the Fair Play award route. UCD have always focussed on trying to play expansive, passing football – perhaps best exemplified by previous coach Martin Russell – and eschewing the more physical side of the game which has ultimately benefitted them. While many in Irish football expected UCD to be humiliated in Europe, they surprised many commentators when their young side defeated F91 Dudelange of Luxembourg 2-1 over two legs. Star of the tie was 19-year-old striker Ryan Swan, the third generation of the Swan family to play in the League of Ireland; his father Derek had finished his career at UCD and his cousin Tony McDonnell was the clubs’ erstwhile captain. Progress through the first qualifying round meant the Students met Slovan Bratislava in the next phase, but a heavy home defeat meant that UCD would progress no further. The blow was softened as the club banked over €400,000 in UEFA prize money during their European adventure. To put this into context Dundalk won just €100,000 in prize money for winning the league title. A club that was relegated and only got to play in Europe due to the Fair Play league got several multiples of that amount, and this sums up the dilemma in the League of Ireland.
Dundalk, so impressive over the last two years, were on the brink of going bust only a year earlier and the club is still in dispute with their former owner over lease arrangements of their ground, Oriel Park, and their youth development facilities. UCD and other clubs such as Cabinteely F.C. and especially Wexford Youths present an alternative model to the more established sides in the league. While Wexford, Cabinteely and UCD might lack the trophies and support levels of other clubs, their focus on the youth development of mostly amateur players raises a dilemma for the league.
Dundalk, Bohemians, Shelbourne, Shamrock Rovers, Cork City, Drogheda United, Derry City and others have all chased, and in some cases achieved, on field success but have very nearly gone out of business in the process due to overspending, mostly in terms of player wages. A discussion is now whether the aim for clubs should be one of full professionalism of players and coaching staff with a focus on European progress and using such successes to grow existing fan bases, or a return to a mostly amateur player set up with resources focused more on local area player development.
Wexford Youths are newly crowned First Division champions and UCD may yet join them in the Premier Division next year via the play-offs. Some League of Ireland fans are asking themselves if these clubs are good for the nation’s top flight; they are not going to bring legions of travelling fans nor are they likely to entice the sceptical armchair football fans of Ireland through the turnstiles of Irish clubs in the way that the stylish football of Richie Towell, Daryl Horgan and co. have brought crowds back to Dundalk games.
That is unlikely to be of concern to UCD, their European windfall has helped to secure the future of the club even further and they are likely to continue offering young men the chance to play league football while pursuing further education. Those same players are likely to be hoovered up by League of Ireland sides with bigger wage budgets and UCD will begin again, as they always do – with a minimum of fuss.