UCD reliving European glory days when they gave Everton the fright of their lives
This summer European football returned with a bang to the Belfield Bowl home of UCD soccer team.
A historic 1-0 victory over F91 Dudelange of Luxembourg ensured that UCD were the only Irish team to win their opening fixture in Europe this season and provided a massive boost for a club which, despite its modest means, continues to have a surprisingly big impact on the international stage.
UCD is one of the few university teams in Europe to have fielded a team in their national first division. It has achieved this with despite attracting tiny attendances. When asked why he went to UCD soccer games the late comedian Dermot Morgan replied “because I hate crowds”. The ubiquity of the Premiership is now so oppressive that the only fixture likely to fill the Belfield Bowl this season is a friendly in mid-July against a side described as a ‘Liverpool X1’. As the Anfield club’s first team squad will by then be mid way through their tour of Australia the visiting side will inevitably consist of youth team players who are both metaphorically and geographically thousands of miles away from the Liverpool first team.
It doesn’t help that the most famous ‘player’ in the UCD’s history never actually played for the club. The player is Socrates who according to urban myth played for the UCD reserve team whilst a medical student in the 1970’s. It is unclear how this rumour started. True Socrates did qualify as a doctor and, as both a chain smoker and heavy drinker, he followed a diet that had more in common with the average Irish student than most elite athletes. Less explicable was the paradox of a footballer simultaneously good enough to captain an outstanding Brazilian side in the 1982 World Cup finals yet not quite good enough to make the UCD first team. Some variations of the story had the manager issuing an ultimatum to Socrates to either quit smoking or quit soccer only for the Brazilian to elect to forego the latter rather than the former. Others had Socrates refusing to play on a Sunday. In any event the myth persisted until shortly before his premature death aged just 57 in 2011 when Socrates revealed that not only had he never played for UCD but that he had never even set foot in Ireland.
Last year UCD achieved the rare double of being relegated and qualifying for Europe in the same season meaning that the Belfield club are one of only two second division sides (along with the curiously named Dutch side “Go Ahead Eagles”) competing in Europe this season. In fact UCD’s qualification borders on the miraculous. Ireland’s third place finish in the UEFA Respect Fair Play rankings entitled the country to an extra place in the Europa League which was awarded to UCD even though they only finished third in the Irish Fair Play League as both sides who finished above them (Dundalk and St. Patrick’s Athletic) had already secured European qualification. Indeed it is likely that UCD will be the last side ever to benefit from this particular back door route into Europe as in future UEFA intend to limit rewards for fair play to prize money.
This is only the third time that UCD have competed in Europe which helps explain why UCD are the only League of Ireland team who enjoy an unbeaten home record in European competition. Their last appearance was in 1999 when they took on Bulgarian side FC Velbazad Kyustendil in the now defunct Intertoto Cup drawing 3-3 in Belfield and 0-0 away thereby going out on the away goals rule.
However UCD’s European debut in the 1984-85 season remains, 30 years later, the finest achievement in the club’s history. The adventure began when UCD won the 1983 FAI Cup with a 2-1 replay victory over Shamrock Rovers. This qualified the students for the following season’s Cup Winners Cup where they faced Everton in the first round. Many feared a heavy defeat, perhaps even one to match Tottenham Hotspurs 14-0 demolition of Drogheda United in the previous seasons UEFA Cup. But, in front of a packed Tolka Park, UCD held an Everton side including Kevin Sheedy, Trevor Steven, Graeme Sharp, Peter Reid and Paul Bracewell to a magnificent 0-0 draw. A fortnight later at Goodison Park UCD came within inches of pulling off perhaps the greatest shock in the history of European club football with a shot that grazed the Everton crossbar in the dying moments of the match. This incident is recalled in detail in the autobiography of Everton goalkeeper Neville Southall who explains “in the European Cup Winners’ Cup first round we played University College Dublin – a student team basically. Everyone expected a walkover, but they held us to a goalless draw in Ireland and in the last few minutes of the second leg at Goodison had a shot that clipped my bar. We were winning 1-0 at the time but had it gone in they would have gone through on away goals.”
Boosted by their narrow escape against the students Everton, went on to have the most successful season in their entire history winning both the European Cup Winners Cup and the English League Championship. But UCD would have a further hand (or at least a lunging foot) to play in the Merseyside club’s fortunes that year. Everton’s last game of the season was the FA Cup Final which they entered as hot favourites to beat Manchester United and complete a historic treble. The match’s iconic moment came in the 78th minute when, with the game scoreless, an under-hit Paul McGrath pass was intercepted by Peter Reid who suddenly found himself through on goal leading a three on one breakaway. Unfortunately for him the one in question was Kevin Moran a revered graduate of both the UCD Collingwood Cup team and its soccer club who stopped Reid’s progress with a hybrid tackle that seemed to draw liberally from both codes of football as it rendered the England international momentarily airborne. Seconds later the most famous member of the UCD Commerce class of 1976 became the first man ever sent-off in an FA Cup Final; an incident that subsequently sparked days of anguished debate over whether the Dubliner ought to be stripped of his winner’s medal.
That 1984-85 was to be as good as it got for UCD which, for financial reasons, had to sell its star players including Joe Hanrahan who went to Manchester United. A year later the students were relegated. Dreams of European trophies won by world-famous Irish internationals still exist on campus but these days they centre exclusively on the Leinster Rugby team who recently relocated their headquarters to Belfield.
This season’s European odyssey continues this week when the students seek to defend their narrow lead in Luxembourg and to win a European tie for the first time in the history of UCD giving their small travelling support the unexpected opportunity to re-live their glory days once again.