Ryan Mackenzie catches up with UCD AFC manager Martin Russell and captain Evan McMillan to get their views on the upcoming season
The time has finally come, and for UCD players and fans alike it’s not a moment too soon. This Friday, the Students will take to the field for their opening match in the newly rebranded Airtricity League Premier Division for the first time in two seasons. The UCD side faces a tough Drogheda United who will be looking to emulate their 2007 championship season, and who will want to demonstrate that life is indeed tough in the top flight. College captain Evan McMillan and manager Martin Russell spoke to The University Observer in the build-up to their opening match and gave their views on the much-anticipated season ahead.
Last season was one to remember for UCD AFC. After opening the campaign with a terrific eight-game winning streak, the College side were able to remain solid and finish strongly to secure first place, ahead of the always threatening Shelbourne, and achieve automatic promotion. The team exhibited moments of real footballing explosiveness, worthy of a spot in the top division of Irish football, and often proved too much for opposing teams – recording six wins by three or more goals, and keeping 20 clean sheets.
The standard the side reached was not a foreseen reality for the players. “At the start of the season we had a team meeting and the aim was to get promoted”, says McMillan, “but most of the players would probably admit that they didn’t really think we would win the league.” This display of modesty by the young captain remains a strong mindset in the team as they approach the daunting challenge ahead.
Asked what their realistic prospects for the coming season are, both McMillan and Russell respond with cautious predictions, perhaps anxious to ensure that the success of last year does not breed complacency in the young team.
While the prime objective is to simply avoid a swift return to the First Division, McMillan is not fazed by the prospect and would not consider it a miracle if UCD were to survive, saying that “Bohemians and Rovers are probably a good bit ahead of the rest… but bar those two I don’t think there’s anyone to fear.” Russell pitches an old cliché: “We’ve just got to try and play the best we can.”
A major issue with this youthful side is the loss of its previous captain, its most experienced player and the shining star of last season, Ronan Finn. The now Sporting Fingal midfielder was a charismatic presence, and as a strong leader will be sorely missed.
Russell, however, appears confident that his midfield is qualified and talented enough to compete without their former talisman. “The midfield is an area in our team that we consider we are very strong in. There are some wonderful, young midfield players at the club”.
Surprisingly, the exceptional youth of this UCD side is of no concern for their manager as they enter a league that boasts some of the most established players in the Irish game. He views the college team as “primarily a development club”, describing it as “the ideal situation to be in” for a young footballer in Ireland, citing the combination of educational opportunities, superb facilities and a high standard of football as a terrific nurturing environment for football’s youth. While applauding the scholarship system for offering these advantages, Russell is under no illusions that the experience of other clubs such as St Patrick’s Athletic and Bohemians is what’s needed to be a title-winning team in the top league.
The enthusiastic manager closes the interview by stating, “It’s going to be competitive – every week it’s a tough game”. The team will meet no tougher test than in its second match where UCD encounter last year’s champions, Bohemians.
While it’s unsure how UCD will fare this season, the college side can be assured they will face a far tougher challenge than they overcame last year. Only time will tell if the Students can pass the test.