UCD manager Collie O’Neill paid tribute to the togetherness of his squad after they won the First Division of the SSE Airtricity League on Friday night.
It wasn’t their best performance of the year, but The Students did enough to earn the point against Finn Harps that secures Premier Division football in 2019.
Speaking to our reporter Peter Branigan, O’Neill was full of praise for his players.
‘Honestly, it’s not about my own feelings. It’s about them, I’m just so proud of them. They’re the best bunch I’ve ever worked with.
‘The club is like a family. In twenty years time, this group will probably be meeting up together, having a drink. They’re buddies, they look after each other, and mind each other on and off the field. That’s why we’ve had success this year.’
The close knit spirit of the club was evident in the packed crowd at The Bowl. Former UCD players, from the recently departed Maxim Kouogun, to Samir Belhout, and back as far as Paul Corry, celebrated the achievement at the full-time whistle.
Robbie Benson and Georgie Kelly, who will be lining up against UCD in the Irish Daily Mail FAI Cup semi-final before the end of the month, both played under O’Neill at Belfield. They too could enjoy the success at the full-time whistle.
College are known for their brand of patient football, but Harps manager Ollie Horgan wasn’t going to let the game become a triumphant lap of honour for the champions elect. A victory for his side would have meant the championship going down to the last day.
O’Neill says they found it difficult to break Harps down.
‘They packed the middle of the park, went touch tight all over. They made it extremely hard for us. They sat tight for an hour, and then opened up a bit more.
‘It was a bit of a rollercoaster of a night, when you concede and then score in one minute. So honestly, I feel relieved. To score one so quickly, it was emotional.
‘It was a night where we had to grind it out, and that’s what we did.’
O’Neill made the step up from assistant manager to manager in advance of the 2015 season. That year brought much promise, as the Students reached the promotion play-offs, before losing to Friday night’s opponents.
The following two seasons saw UCD continue to challenge but fall short in the race for promotion. Before the start of this campaign, Collie O’Neill’s team were behind a couple of clubs in most people’s predictions for the title.
But O’Neill says the team picked up points this year where they wouldn’t have in other years. He pinpoints two games in particular which encapsulated their change of fortunes.
‘Finn Harps away. It was a similar game to tonight, and we came out with a 3-1 win. The most recent game here at Belfield against Cabinteely. They closed us down, like Harps did tonight, but we were able to see it through.
‘That’s the reason I’m relieved, because I wanted it so much for them. They’ve worked so hard this year, from pre-season onwards. I’m so happy they could get it over the line.’
This is the culmination of four years of hard work for the Drogheda native. But the season is by no means over for UCD. They play their final League game on Saturday against Longford.
Then, the following weekend, it’ll be the toughest test in Irish domestic football. They travel to Oriel Park for an FAI Cup semi-final against Premier Division leaders Dundalk.
What an occasion that promises to be, as this group of players can become only the second in the Sky Blue of UCD to reach the Cup Final.
With the season they’ve had, you wouldn’t bet against them getting all the way to the Aviva.