David McMillan, Andy Boyle, Robbie Benson, Ronan Finn and Ciarán Kilduff helped Dundalk make domestic history in 2015 and rewrite League of Ireland European history in 2016.
What’s equally as impressive, and important in the context of a life outside of soccer, is that they all began their League of Ireland soccer career at UCD.
The Belfield side have been providing scholarships to aspiring League of Ireland players around the country for almost 40 years.
Allied to the aforementioned quintet, Shamrock Rovers’ experienced midfielder Greg Bolger and Partick Thistle forward Conor Sammon also benefitted from the programme.
Speaking with extratime.ie, current UCD assistant manager Ian Ryan discussed the model used by the club and how it facilitates the development of young players.
One of his first comments about the club and university partnership is that it’s “the best place for any young player to play first team football earlier.”
He cites the recent example of Waterford’s newest goalkeeping recruit Niall Corbett. The Laois native began playing in the UCD Saturday Leinster Senior League (LSL) squad while in first year, the Sunday LSL team in second year and by the third year of his degree he was starring for the senior UCD team in the SSE Airtricity League First Division.
Corbett is an example of how players who have progressed through the scheme, in the words of Ryan, “at 22 years of age have two to three years of first team football under their belt and a degree in their back pocket.”
Ryan, who coached UCD under-19s to league glory in 2016 before leading Leinster Schoolboys to interprovincial glory in 2017, revealed that the entire UCD first team this year will be composed of players on the scholarship scheme – 11 of his successful under-19s squad of 20 have transitioned to the senior squad in 2018.
The squad that manager Collie O’Neill and his assistant Ryan will be working with is composed of 23 players while others on the scholarship will follow the path trodden by Corbett and join the LSL squads.
However, Ryan expects there to be fluidity between the teams and the mantra the management will be working with is: “if they’re good enough then 100% they’ll be getting a chance.”
By adopting a scholarship-only approach this season, the options for selection are confined to those who are enrolled on university courses within the college, yet there is also a sense of security that players on scholarship schemes stay at the club throughout the length of their degree, thus allowing them to develop their footballing careers at the club.
It’s worth mentioning here that recent former UCD players who left the club to go to England, such as Ryan Swan, were not engaged with the scholarship scheme.
Perhaps one of the best recent examples of the scheme is Athlone native Robbie Benson. The former Marist College student developed into one of the most cultured midfielders in the First Division while earning a Masters degree in Actuarial Science before moving to Dundalk to win a league title in 2016, playing and score in Europe (he had also European experience from his time at UCD) all before the age of 25.
Ryan himself, who won a First Division title with Dundalk in 2008 before becoming a fans’ favourite at Tolka Park, ended his career at UCD in 2015 due to injury, however his own college education had also began with a scholarship scheme.
Starting out at Shamrock Rovers, the former full back was encouraged to begin a Business and Accounting career at IT Tallaght where the college soccer team was managed by Pat Scully – who also his manager at the Hoops.
That group of Shamrock Rovers players were the first to be offered the opportunity of a scholarship at IT Tallaght – the scholarship was dependent upon players playing in the League of Ireland rather than exclusively for Rovers.
As such, Ryan was able to continue his studies while playing football at both Dundalk and Shelbourne. Following the completion of his scholarship degree, Ryan undertook, off his own devices, a Higher Diploma in Education in DCU where he continued to combine a successful footballing career with his studies.
This approach of continuing to upskill his education allowed Ryan the opportunity of a full time career outside the league when he was forced to hang up his boots at the age of 28. He is currently employed as a secondary school teacher in Clondalkin while also managing Leinster Schoolboys under-18s and assisting Collie O’Neill at the Belfield Bowl.
Ryan is a rare example of a player who had to retire due to injury before the age of 30 but had a solid career off the field to fall back on as well as strong coaching experience thanks to his decision to place a high value on having a good education from an early age.