UCD Captain, Gary O’Neill looks back on a stellar year for First Division Champions
Article by Andrew Dempsey - @AndrewDempsey98
In a division full of surprises, drama and quality, it was UCD AFC who prevailed as the First Division champions for 2018. The Students, led by talented young coach, Collie O’Neill, confounded almost every pre-season prediction of where the Belfield Boys would finish come the season’s end.
As the dust has begun to settle on the club’s outstanding achievement, UCD captain and talismatic midfield star Gary O’Neill caught up with BetweentheStripes.ie reporter Andrew Dempsey to reflect on a brilliant year for the Boys in Sky Blue.
To begin, UCD hosted Dublin rivals Shelbourne at the UCD Bowl. Straight off the back of winning their 47th Collingwood Cup and winning the Rustler’s CUFL crown, this was the first test of UCD’s mettle for the 2018 campaign.
“I think it was huge in terms of making a statement.I thought the manner in how we got the win was better than anything else. I thought we were very good that day and it was a statement.”
On April 6th, UCD saw their unbeaten run came to a crashing halt. A two-nil defeat was damaging against Drogheda United at the time, however, it made the group go back to basics after such a rip-roaring start to the year at the UCD Bowl.
“I think we might have been overachieving a little bit at the start because of the amount of games before the start of the season with the Collingwood and CUFL. I don’t think any team will ever go the season unbeaten in the First Division, you’re going to lose games, its such a tough league. The defeat brought us back down to earth a little bit and we went back to basics again!”
May then arrived and chaos ensued for the group of Students. Exams arrived, which ruined preparations for many a game, with the Galway game in particular proving to be a difficult scenario for all involved. Collie O’Neill’s young guns were soundly beaten two-nil at Éamonn Deacy Park on that occasion.
“We played in Galway and I remember Georgie Kelly had to do his exam that morning, so he couldn’t come with us. I think Conor Kearns got his exam changed to that morning as well, it was a nightmare. It was tough, it was hard, but I think some find it tougher than others. Exams definitely played a role in May, 100”%”
After bouncing back well from a May plagued with madness, UCD went on a three-game winning run which culminated in a seven-point lead being built up prior to the mid-season break.
“We were actually on the bus home from Finn Harps and with it being the last game before the mid-season break, we were kind of thinking, it’s going to be very hard to mess it up from here after going seven clear.”
However, things came to a crashing halt at home to Longford Town. A 5-1 defeat at home was a serious test of UCD’s character, after so many looked at the title race to be a done deal.
“I’d be very good friends with a few of the Longford lads and even after speaking to them I don’t think it was a 5-1 game. It was a freak game that everything seemed to go in for them. They were better than us on the day, there’s no doubt about that but I think 3-1 would have been a fair score. However, they were much better than us on the day and it brought us back down to earth after going seven points clear.”
With the gap cut, UCD had no time to feel sorry for themselves at all. July took on even further significance than it already had and like all good champions do, the Students showed a steel and resilience to bounce back in grand manner.
“When we beat Galway at home it was then I thought we were very, very close here (to the title). It was a game where we started brilliantly and then we gave away a soft penalty. Conor Kearns came up with a huge save and I think that when you look at our moments of the season, that was one that probably went under the radar. It was a critical moment in our season and I think it was that win more than any other when I thought we were very close!”
After the win over Galway, few suspected many problems for the Students in the next few weeks. Wins over Athlone and Cabinteely ensued, before a potential banana skin away to Cobh Ramblers at St. Colman’s Park. While it was a poor performance on the night, O’Neill noted that it was that result that pushed the team on to dispose of Drogheda United on their penultimate away trip of the season.
“We grabbed a point against Cobh which was huge. In previous years we would’ve lost that kind of a game. We were terrible on the night. We got a penalty late enough which gave us the confidence against Drogheda the week after. Drogheda were probably the toughest team I’ve come across this season. Obviously, Sean Brennan getting sent off helped us a little, but we were brilliant on the night and fully deserving of the three points.”
With two games to play, UCD only had to earn a further point to lift the First Division crown for the first time since 2009. Only a rampaging Finn Harps side stood in the Students way.
“That night against Finn Harps was our worst performance of the season. Nobody wanted to make mistakes, nobody was getting on the ball and it was just a terrible, terrible game to be honest. Harps took the lead from a set-piece and luckily enough, Daire O’Connor played a great ball through to Conor Davis and the rest was history! It was an unbelievable feeling to do it. It was probably more relief than happiness. We saw all the doubters saying we’d bottle it and we’d slip up but to just get over the line was brilliant.”
With Premier Division football in the pipeline for 2019, many will question whether or not UCD will have what it takes to survive in the top tier with their exclusively scholarship model.
While the loss of midfielders Greg Sloggett and Daire O’Connor will be difficult to overcome, O’Neill notes that he is not concerned given the continuous conveyor belt of talent at the club, while also confirming that he’s staying with College for 2019.
“I’ll be at UCD next year. Greg and Daire are very good players and they’re players who have been here for years but as you know, the conveyor belt at UCD never slows. We have Paul Doyle ready to come in as well as Conor Crowley, who’s another good young player. We’ve loads of talent in the pipeline, Yoyo Mahdy and Conor Davis, to name a few, can easily play where Daire was, so I think we’ll get on just fine next year.”
UCD manager, Collie O’Neill’s decision to persist with a scholarship only system for next season was a talking point on this weeks Between the Stripes LOI podcast, hosted by Kieran Burke & Jon Brier. Catch the show in full now, using the RadioPublic player below and don’t forget to subscribe on your preferred podcast app.