On the brink of a First Division league title and with a FAI Cup Semi-Final against Premier Division giants Dundalk looming, UCD have plenty to play for between now and the end of the season.
However, this has not been an easy road for the Students. Having been perennial promotion contenders for the last few years, the side from Belfield have fallen at the final hurdle many times previous.
One man who is well-versed to all the trials and tribulations of playing for UCD is Daire O’Connor. Now 21, O’Connor has finally catapulted himself into Collie O’Neill’s supremely well-rounded first-team squad after a few years of knocking at the door in Dublin 4.
Speaking exclusively to extratime.ie ahead of his sides tantalising clash at home to Finn Harps on Friday evening, the Irish Colleges and Universities International told of his rise through the ranks with the Students as he prepares for a season-defining game on Friday evening.
“It’s taken a good two or three years to get my place in the team. It’s probably been my best impact on the team, so far. I’ve been in and around the panel for four years.” He said.
“I made my debut in March 2015 during my Leaving Certificate year and I only had a handful of appearances here and there.
“Injuries and form held me back a little in the last two years and I didn’t really ever have a proper hold on the jersey.
“I had a good off-season with the Colleges and Universities team, I played in the Collingwood and was in good form and had no injuries to deal with so Collie pulled me aside and told me I had my spot in the team for the season.
“I started the first game of the season against Shels and started every game up until Drogheda away, so I’ve had a great opportunity to play and keep up my form!”
It’s no secret that UCD don’t have the largest of followings in the League of Ireland. Despite that, the Students can rely on a core group of fans who back the team to the hill wherever they go.
As a young footballer still learning the ins-and-outs of his trade, O’Connor believes that the support they receive from their most loyal and fervent supporters can only be seen as a positive as they always praise and support the team, no matter what the score-line is.
“We have maybe two to three people that go to the games that aren’t family and to be fair to them they’re very loyal fans. There’s not that many of them but they’re great.
“Whether you’re a new lad coming or you’re an experienced player and you’ve had a bad game they never get on your case. When we got beat 5-1 at home by Longford the two lads in the corner were still singing away and thankfully they never get on our backs.”
Compared to many of UCD teammates, O’Connor has something that many of his peers don’t have in their back pocket.
Back in 2017, the former Arklow Town youngster represented the Republic of Ireland in the World University Games in Taiwan.
While there was eventual heartbreak, the now 21-year-old revealed that his experience with the Boys in Green is the stand-out moment in his young footballing career to date by a long way.
“We went away for a week or two and its football, football, football. There’s a fantastic professional environment and the stage that we played on, in front of 4 or 5,000 people was incredible.
“In the game against Taiwan we came into the game needing a win and to this day, it was the most euphoric moment of my life when Joe Doyle scored in the 90th minute followed by the biggest anti-climax when the other result didn’t go our way.
“From pulling on the green jersey all the way to the crowds, it was by far the best experience of my life footballing wise!”
Coming up through the newly-introduced National League structures, O’Connor is well used to the structure of underage League of Ireland football.
While this has been a massive lift to the domestic game, there has been plenty of calls from many experts to introduce a new under-23 league to help bridge the gap between junior and senior League of Ireland football.
Despite being in favour of this kind of proposition, Collie O’Neill’s electric midfield star noted that more needs to be done for this idea to come into fruition in other aspects of the League of Ireland spectrum.
“It’s one of those things that often gets thrown around the place,” O’Connor remarked.
“You could potentially argue a lot of the players in the First Division are the best of the Under-19’s crop.
“The League of Ireland and the First Division needs to be addressed before we can go any further. The league is never going to be perfect but until they start marketing it, and addressing it the way it should be, I don’t see it really happening.”
With college starting back just this week, UCD’s number 7 has plenty on his mind. While playing in the League of Ireland and with many other social distractions springing up here and there in Belfield, the balance between football and study can be difficult.
The ability to remain laser-focused is often ignored as an attribute but in the Wicklow man’s case, as he explained, he is well-used to this type of mindset, having experienced it at schoolboy’s level with many well-known clubs around Dublin as a Wicklow native.
“I’ve been used to the study and football balance since I was 16. Obviously in secondary school things aren’t as demanding but I was travelling up from Arklow to Home Farm, St Josephs Boys and UCD since I was 15 or 16.
“I was doing my homework on the way up to Dublin three or four nights a week. In college I had to adapt to gym sessions in the morning by getting up early.
“We’re not full-time in UCD but we may as well be with the amount extra stuff we do with gym work and all, but it still only adds up to about six or seven hours a week.
“We don’t go out every week, we’re athletes, we treat it as a full-time job. It’s manageable but it’s definitely not a walk in the park as some might say!”
With a league title within striking distance for the first time since that famous league success of 2009, there is definitely a feel-good factor around this UCD side.
Installed as title favourites since early June, the Students have kept the momentum rolling despite one or two disappointing league showings, none more so than the sobering 5-1 home defeat to Longford Town.
However, the Students are now on the brink at long last as the team spirit at the Belfield campus is on cloud nine ahead of a massive occasion on Friday evening at the UCD Bowl.
“There’s been a constant buzz of excitement around the team this year.” O’Connor declared.
“We went into the break seven points ahead, but we weren’t celebrating it then. From day one, it has always been ours to lose and it’s still in our hands. We know it’s not going to be easy on Friday.
“If we slip up, we’ve a very tough game coming up against Longford who are also battling to get into the Playoffs while Finn Harps will also feel they’ve a good outside chance of winning the league.
“It’s not as if we’ve a cushy two-week period where we can win one and lose the other. Longford have already beaten us before in the league and Harps have given us two very tough games where they will probably feel they should’ve got more out of them.”
“We haven’t gone this far to throw it away on the last day or the last two weeks but we’re also quite nervous, we know what’s at stake.”