Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Fixtures Announced

Following the announcement of the 2013 League of Ireland fixtures earlier this afternoon UCD will open their campaign, on March 8, with an away visit to Bohemiens. Their first home fixture, against Derry City, will come the following Friday, on March 15. They will then subsequently travel to the south-west of the country to lock horns with newly-promoted Limerick City, following a long overdue spell outside Ireland's top-tier for the Blues.

Among the domestic glamour home ties for UCD, they will play host to Sligo Rovers (April 1), St. Patrick's Athletic (April 12), Shamrock Rovers (April 26) and again against the same sides on September 20, October 4 and October 18 respectively.

Speaking today on the season opener at Dalymount Park UCD manager Martin Russell seemed optimistic ahead of the new campaign. He was also keen to stress the impact UCD's new players will hope to have come March, following the departure of key figures, such as Paul O'Conor, Danny Ledwith and Graham Rusk, during the off-season.

"We will look forward to going to Dalymount to start the new season, It's a great opportunity for our new players to showcase their ability on one of the biggest stages in the league."

On the inaugural home league fixture Russell also spoke about looking forward to welcoming Derry City, the FAI Cup winners, as well as the following weeks trip to Thomand Park in Limerick. The latter, he emphasised, "will be a nice place for the lads to play in such a big stadium".

Captain Mick Leahy, meanwhile, echoed a similar sentiment, willing the team to "build on a good result" in the opening fixture, and "get more points than we did over the first series of games last season."

Leahy is also particularly looking forward to the Limerick fixture as it "should be a great place to play" and it presents the opportunity to revisit some family living in the county, which it will doubtless be an added incentive for the 23-year-old.

For a full list of UCD AFC's 2013 fixtures click here

Thursday, October 4, 2012


As the League of Ireland lumbered its way past the mid-way point in the season UCD AFC were a team that looked doomed. Rooted to the bottom, winless for what seemed an eternity, the Students looked destined for a relegation showdown. (Mustering just a single victory in seventeen outings didn't do them any favours, either.) As Dundalk, their nearest competitors, inched their way bit by bit away from UCD, grabbing the odd point or three every couple of games, the College were a team desperately struggling for any sort of momentum. After a decent beginning to the season, winning two of their three opening home fixtures - although they were docked three points for Monaghan's withdrawal from the League, which was reckoned to have knocked their confidence a bit - their momentum soon waned, before enduring on a horrid run which culminated in them claiming bottom place, with nowhere to look but down.

But then, fortunately, they were handed a lifeline. The resurgence, initiated through Paul Corry's sublime curling effort in the final minutes away to newly-promoted Shelbourne, saw them slowly move their way up the table. With each victory came a reassurance that they weren't ready to roll over just yet. This unprecedented rekindled sense of spirit set UCD, buoyed on by its young fan base, appealing to such a target market for its tendency to produce attractive football (though sometimes not such attractive results), on their way, having tapped into such a timely rich vein of form, and they haven't looked back sense.

Their form, prior to a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of St. Patrick's Athletic on Monday, read like this: five wins and a draw from their last seven league fixtures. Only St. Patrick's Athletic and Sligo Rovers have bettered that feat and there have been endless theories as to how UCD rode such luck and wriggled their way out of trouble, lengthening the gape between them and Dundalk to ten points with Friday's desperately unlucky draw away to Bohemians. Confirmation of their safety was imminent.

The most obvious of reasons was to do with their dynamic holding midfielder Paul Corry who departed for Hillsborough as deadline day reared its ugly head. His absence, though it was through him UCD kickstarted this run, strangely coincided with UCD's significant improvement in the League and considering he was one of UCD's most cherished players it left the fans slightly baffled. (This theory, that it was basically him alone holding UCD back, was even mooted to him on his Facebook, to which he responded, in obvious sarcastic fashion, "thanks for that enormous boost of confidence".) Martin Russell, the man at the helm at UCD, saw this as an opportunity to shake things up and in came Barry McCabe, while Dean Clark also began featuring prominently as a formation change beckoned. Corry's defensive-mindedness, although useful in breaking up counter-attacks and sweeping up any arising danger, seemed to be holding his team back and the introduction of Clark and McCabe seemed to breath new life into UCD's sails.

The spike in UCD's fortunes also lays thanks to David MacMillan's second-coming. The former St. Pat's talisman netted on his first night back, while the fans took to his presence immediately and showered it with adulation. He preceded to add a handful of more goals, some crucial along the way, as he kick-started The Students' hugely unprecedented revival. His impersonating of Graham Rusk's role - UCD's usual number nine who had too rode his luck early on in the season with his dispatching of a cluster of penalties, but was then sidelined for several moths with a lengthy lay-off - has been to near perfection, averaging a goal every other game since his return, and its no wonder how he's already nailed down a starting slot ahead of Chris Lyons and Cillian Morrison.

The manner of UCD's victories have also warranted high praise for the way in which the club, a football team based as part of the University College of Dublin, has found ways of keeping their head above the water.

This is a side which consists of students currently attending UCD, the college, as opposed to the heaps of professional clubs that actually employ players as part of a full-time job. Currently, the reportedly highest paid player in the League of Ireland, Gary Twigg, receives in excess of €1,000 a week. Those who ply their trade at UCD get a fraction of that sum but they hold an advantage over these players with the education programme they are currently undertaking, which, as well as providing the UCD players with an educational backbone, also lends them an invaluable experience of competing at the highest tier in Irish league football. Many players skip out on education which leaves them in serious trouble if football doesn't work out, which is the case in a lot of cases.

Paul Corry is a fine, and recent, good example of this. The Dubliner, having recently made the daring step of crossing the channel to England, combined studies with football during his four-year stay in college. Although his style of play attracted many potential suitors, he continued his studies, despite Burnley, at the time flying high in the Premier League, enquiring about his services. He left the college with a degree secured and a lucrative move to Sheffield to reward his four years of dedication to UCD, both on and off the pitch.

With the amount of players leaving and returning from abroad having skipped out on education in the process they are served a second-chance at UCD where an opportunity arises to test their mettle against the best in the country. Sure, the devotion to the football programme are significantly less frequent than professional clubs, but the intensity and the competitiveness remain the same as any other team in the League of Ireland and that's, in the end, what makes the football team so unique. Although they invest less time on the pitch than professionally paid players do they still manage to defy the odds, beat the drop and plan ahead for yet another year of top tier Irish football which in itself is a bonus as it at attracts a higher quantity of players and gives the coaches a better pool to choose from when there are new additions to the college each year.

So, as another successful year for the College draws to a close fans can once again look forward to the promise of League of Ireland football at the UCD Bowl next season, a promise that seems all the more remarkable considering the horror run UCD endured for what dragged on for what seemed a lot longer than the four months it lasted.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Paul Corry Makes "Dream Move" Abroad a Reality as he Departs UCD

There was never a chance UCD could keep a talent like Paul Corry forever. A deep-lying hugely cherished midfielder, the 21-year-old had plied his trade at UCD for three years refusing the urge of Owen Coyle's Burnley to pursue his education and a college degree. Now, three years on from initially turning his back on a "dream move" to England, Corry has once again been the subject of intense transfer speculation. Only this time it was Sheffield Wednesday and this time he accepted.

During August, as rumours continued to swirl over where his future lay, a tremendous amount of attention was paid to his Twitter account. Cue the onslaught of questions, all tied, inevitably, to the same topic: where he was heading. He was coy and smart in his responses, citing he had to "see what happens" - obviously a shrewd tactic; neither revealing nor concealing any information he may have known - and the fact that he never shied away the interest surely told the UCD fans he was on his way. They were forced to accept the inevitable as a fully-fit Corry didn't partake in Derry City knocking out UCD at home in the 3rd round of the FAI Ford Cup. The writing was clearly on the wall and it was only a matter of time until the Owls had their man.

Unfortunately for the Students, Corry's future had been clouded by uncertainty for the better part of a year. After the 2011 League of Ireland season, as clubs stepped up their pursuit of him, few expected the former Belvedere schoolboy to remain with one of the League's weaker sides. He admitted that he had spoken to various managers, just before the new year as teams were beginning their pre-season training, but an overwhelming sense of pride - and a determination to see out his college degree - saw him stay, signing on for another year at UCD. Martin Russell, UCD manager, had sought "continuity" from the season before and securing the services of one of his star players for another year guaranteed just that. Corry, only twenty-one, knew that at UCD he'd be getting first team football and that was one of many factors that led to his staying at the College.

With Corry having departed its become apparent - in fact, it already was - that UCD predominantly serves as a stepping stone to many players who go on to achieve greater things. Players such as Greg Bolger, Ronan Finn and Evan MacMillan all went on to taste the highs - and lows - of European football, while Conor Sammon had achieved a long-standing dream of his as he signed for Premier League strugglers Wigan. Corry may be next in line to taste success away from the Bowl as the jump to Wednesday represents a chance to really see if he's worth his weight in salt. In these instances, players not deemed good enough can fall behind, become lax, disillusioned and leave the game  early, feeling unfulfilled. Nobody wants it happen but sometimes the game just can't help itself, taking hostage an unsettled player abroad and suffocating his confidence until it becomes just a scrap of what it used to be.

In Corry, whose style of play resembles Michael Carrick of Manchester United or Sergio Busquets of the all-conquering Barcelona - players who let others hog the limelight as they go about their business in a quiet manner - Wednesday have acquired a jack-of-all-trades. He can tackle, distribute safe passes - sometimes key - make lung-bursting runs through midfield and, perhaps most importantly, has a keen eye for goal. He's become renowned at UCD for his ability to shoot from long-range, with that trusty left foot of his a particular crowd-pleaser. He would regularly partner Paul O'Connor in midfield, and while O'Connor would make forward runs Corry would stay back and make sure to nullify any potential quick breaks the opposition may attempt. (Too add to this, Corry recently became the only League of Ireland player to receive a call-up to the Irish under-21 side, against Turkey, further adding to his revered status.)

While UCD manager Martin Russel was fairly strict with instructions for Corry - primarily 'clean-up duty' - hopefully we'll get to see more of the adventurous Corry under Dave Jones. When he has been allowed to roam he is more than capable of unleashing curling, dipping strikes from long-range, with many finding the net in spectacular fashion - see his goals vs Stevenage and Shelbourne for example, both in the weeks leading up to his move - so Wednesday fans have something to look forward to.

If ever there was a time to make the switch it's now as the course Corry is studying is nearing its completion date and so, this time he'll be ready to focus solely on his football. Failing that, he'll still have a degree to fall back on if things go pear-shaped so all-in-all there's nothing to lose for Corry as he swaps the college turf of University College of Dublin for Sheffield's Hillsborough Stadium. One can only hope it'll be a transition worth making.

Note: I have written previously on Paul Corry, over for the folks at In Bed with Maradona, so if you're fishing for more information on Sheffield Wednesday's new signing I'd implore you read that too.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Shay's Untimely Fall from Grace Signals The End of an Era

Shay looks on after Spain's 4-0 annihilation of Ireland

It was, in the end, inevitable. His inferior performances at the European Championships clearly showcased Given's slow demise as one of the world's finest shot-stoppers and at 6.57 PM on Monday evening he announced his retirement from international football via the medium of Twitter. While it's clear to many Twitter is now densely populated with footballers, nobody predicted Ireland's greatest ever goalkeeper would announce such news in such anti-climatic fashion. Interestingly, it conveys perhaps yet another loss for communication in Trapattoni's eyes. A manager renowned for not forming close bonds with his players, Trapattoni had revealed on Sunday that Given, as well as the trio of Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne - all of who's international careers still hang in the balance - would be staying on.

It was clear, though, that during the course of Euro 2012 Given's ability to perform at the highest level was proving an impossible task. As the games wore on the 37-year-olds wear and tear was finally beginning to become evident. Against Croatia, Mario Mandzukic's first header - as Shay lept helplessly to the left of his goal - left him seething, and understandably so. The Croats' third goal, again credited to Mandzukic, cannoned off the post into Given's back, sending the ball over his own line. Again, he was furious.

Fast-forward to Italy ten days later, sandwiched in between a 4-0 annihilation to a rampant Spain, Given was again at fault. His spillage from Antonio Cassano's tame effort that subsequently resulted in Italy's first successful headed effort of EURO 2012 landed Irish fans, and Given, in disbelief. His shattered confidence was laid bare for all to see and it wasn't a pretty sight to see Ireland's most capped player in distress.

In fact, he'd been the driving force behind several mistakes, both for nation and club, of which were scuppered due to it being a 'one-off'. Mistakes duly repeated themselves, 'one-off after 'one-off', all be it not in quick succession, which led to fans believing he was still in his prime. It was only at the European Championships that many came to the realisation that Given had surpassed his zenith and could no longer dine at the big kids table.

This retirement was a long time coming for the 36-year-old hailing from Donegal. As goalkeepers usually tend to outlast their outfield counterparts, Given, nicknamed "Lazarus" at Newcastle because of his powers of recovery, had fortunately outlived his stay in the Irish team, and the majority of Ireland's World Cup squad, providing memorable moments a plenty to leave the turf with and hang up his boots in the knowledge that he gave all he could for Ireland. For a man who plied his trade in between the sticks for over 16 years on an international stage, he merited more recognition than a mere two revered international tournaments - although one as his performance levels dropped considerably. As the FAI appointed some men just out of pure desperation on a reasonably shoe-string priced budget - primarily Steven Staunton, a man who was starved of any previous managerial experience - Given, and indeed the rest of the squad, were made to suffer at the hands of the FAI's errors in judgement. When they finally did hire a man suitable of guiding the nation to qualification, Shay had already entered his final years as a seasoned professional and by that stage it was too late for his talent to truly shine.

There were, as I said, previous signs of his fall from grace. Whilst in the midst of a gripping qualifying campaign for the EURO's late last year, Given was culpable for Armenia's goal at the Aviva Stadium in Ireland's final group fixture and also, at the same venue, for an Estonian goal that denied an Irish victory - both goals which would have never materialised had it been Given three, maybe four, years ago. There was another moment, albeit for his club side, Aston Villa, when Norwich striker, Anthony Pilkington, lined up a free-kick on the edge of the box. With the five-man wall covering the right of Given's goal, and noticing his international teammate slowly inching towards the right, Pilkington fired the ball past a helpless Given and the area where he should have been covering. (In my opinion, and taking into account Given's movement to anticipate a curling effort - and the speed of the ball - that free-kick should have never eluded him. Although that might just be me. Decide for yourself here.) 

But, then again, he was - and sometimes still is - capable of producing performances of the highest standard; most notably, and recently, his heroics in Russia's capital alongside Richard Dunne, a mere nine months before his disenchanting showing in Poland. Alas, while those performances would repeat themselves a couple of years back these days they come seldomly.

Many were grateful for Given's willingness to stay on, despite Ireland's recent shortcomings. He was there from the very start, making his hotly anticipated d├ębut, while plying his trade in the midlands with due to be crowned champions Blackburn - although unable to oust the then current England number one  Tim Flowers - and was thrown in the deep end for Russia's visit in 1996. Mick McCarthy, experimenting with an unfamiliar 3-5-2, had been recently appointed by the FAI to succeed the legendary Jack Charlton and had handed Given his first international cap, as a reward for a string of impressive showings for Sunderland as they stormed to promotion with the 19-year-old in between the sticks. He soon nailed down a place in the national side, with thanks to Packie Bonner's retirement, and had retained it ever since, despite the emergence of fellow international 'keepers Dean Kiely, Paddy Kenny and Kieren Westwood, to name a few.

But, recently, his performances haven't matched the public's expectations and have lacked the cutting edge that the Irish were used to. He's seen as the country's saviour, the one they can rely on when the chips are down, the man who makes the impossible look a great deal easier. Sure, he may be susceptible to the odd lapse - Dion Dublin ring any bells? - but, in the end, he's the man who - along with stalwart Richard Dunne - plays a predominant role in how the Irish defence - 11 clean sheets in 14 games prior to the EURO's - is they way it is, moulded under the tutelage of the wily Giovanni Trapattoni. In a system often referred to as the "Green Cantenaccio", because of Trapattoni's insistence on defensive solidarity, Ireland have prospered hugely and Given has played his part to near-perfection. During EURO 2012 Spain's Xabi Alonso spoke, and in an eloquent manner, about the 'system' which teams, club or international, choose to endorse. While he was obviously referring to Spain and their respective style of play, he claimed that "the issue is not the system, but how you use the system", and with Trapattoni his style of football, while it may be branded 'boring' and 'unadventurous', has reaped the benefits for Ireland and Given, at the base of the system, has been an integral part of it.