The UCD soccer team have the most inexperienced squad in the Airtricity League. Micheál Halton met up with their manager, Martin Russell, to discuss the current state of the club
Many Belfield students might not be familiar with the name Martin Russell, but as UCD AFC aim to push on in their second consecutive season in the Airtricity League Premier Division, his is a name you will be hearing a lot more of.
Russell is obviously a man with a passion for his job and he is not afraid to speak his mind when asked to analyse why his team has been struggling so far. The students entered this season in the all too familiar position of being a team in transition, having lost a number of key players from last year’s squad.
UCD have managed just one win, against Drogheda United, so far this season. Their lack of experience, in comparison to other sides in the league, is pinpointed by Russell as a contributing factor to his side’s poor start: “When you’ve got players coming from schoolboy football and they’re asked to play in the first team,” he says. “They’re inexperienced at that [level] and you need a certain time to grow.”
UCD may suffer from a large turnover of players between seasons, but the approach that is taken to young players is worthy of high praise and is unique in Irish soccer. The opportunity to play football while getting an education is something that should be more prevalent in the Irish game and UCD should arguably serve as the template for how players are brought through in the future.
Russell can see the benefits of this approach and is quick to extol its virtues: “UCD is different to all the other teams in the Premier Division. The emphasis that is put on education is right for young players.” In many ways, UCD have been a victim of their own success as bigger clubs have come in for some of their best performers from last season: “We’ve lost some of our players because we couldn’t afford to keep them.”
On the other side of the coin, the former Middlesbrough man is well aware of the number of players who drop out of the game, only to be left with nothing to fall back on: “Football is littered with players who, by the time they’re 20, they’re out of the game and you know it doesn’t have to be that way.” Russell’s own son Sean has obviously followed his father’s advice and he is currently a member of UCD’s first-team squad, having made his debut last season.
The lack of support for the Students has always been a problem, but Russell is quick to point out that this is a league-wide problem. He doesn’t lament the situation, but instead focuses on what he sees as the solution.
“We need to improve everything,” he says. “The clubs need to do better, the media need to promote it better and maybe get more games on TV and the population need to want to come and see us.” He sees the example of the FAI Cup final as a positive for the league: “Sligo Rovers played Shamrock Rovers in front of 30,000 people, it gives you an inkling of what could be there.”
If there is one niggle that Russell has, it is that UCD haven’t had live coverage of a game since they entered the Premier Division last season. With UCD seeking to broaden its support base, all coverage is important. When you take into consideration UCD’s seventh place finish last season and their Setanta Cup participation this season, it is all the more irritating.
“I don’t know if there’s another side that hasn’t had a televised game since we’ve been there [in the Premier Division], I think our younger players do warrant that and hopefully this year we can create an opportunity, to make the cameras come.”
Russell is filled with enthusiasm when he talks about the structures that have been developed in UCD. Now entering his third season as first-team manager, he is quick to share the credit with those working around him for his successful spell in charge, which included promotion to the Premier Division in 2009 and participation in the Setanta Cup this term. “It has been important for me to have the people around helping,” he explains. “We have good staff here and you need that and the players need that backup in order to help them grow.”
UCD may not have started this season in spectacular fashion but, with Russell’s record of success and a developing group of young talented players who are all keen to learn, it would be foolish to bet against them turning it around. Their next challenge is an away fixture to St Patrick’s Athletic in Richmond Park. A tough task for a struggling team, but a positive result could be just what’s needed to rejuvenate this young team’s season.