Gavin Whelan: 'It's an incredible thing that UCD have going over the years'

Mon, Aug 26 2019

Gavin Whelan comes from a famous footballing family, enjoyed huge domestic success with Drogheda United, but is thankful for initially getting the opportunity to balance an education with playing at a high level at UCD.

While Home Farm nurtured Gavin's potential at underage level, it was at UCD where he experienced the opportunity to combine study with playing football in the League of Ireland.

"It's an incredible thing that UCD have going over the years," he told extratime.ie

"A lot of players only spend a couple of seasons there, then they recruit again. I saw UCD as a stepping stone and still had aspirations of going to England and becoming a professional football player. It's a good footballing choice, but the added extra is the education side and giving yourself a safety net to fall back on.

"The family I came from - Ronnie (Gavin's uncle) obviously went on to dizzying heights at Liverpool, but my dad (Paul) wasn't so fortunate. He had to carve out a career in the League of Ireland. He always wished that he'd finished his education and UCD turned out to be an ideal choice for me."

In 2004, the young midfielder followed his UCD manager Paul Doolin to Drogheda United, where both were about to be part of a significant upturn in the club's ambitions and realities.

"I was one of Paul's first signings. He brought a level of professionalism to the place, even when we were part-timers. Players who had jobs, Paul was always trying to get them to take midweek mornings off. He strived to steer us to become a full-time, professional club.

"Paul has his downfalls, but the level of purpose and foresight for what he wanted was great. The impact he had on the club was very positive, which led to winning the league and doing so well in Europe."

The first silverware to return to Boyneside during that period came in the guise of the 2005 FAI Cup. Whelan netted the final's opening goal in a 2-0 win over double-chasers Cork City at the old Lansdowne Road.

"We upped our game against Cork because they had an air of arrogance, in my opinion. They were great football players, but played with extreme confidence. The game plan was to get in their faces early on and Paul got his tactics right. A lot of our players went on to do excellent in the League of Ireland, so we were an up and coming team."

On top of the aforementioned league and cup wins, Drogheda also added the 2006 and 2007 Setanta Sports Cup to their impressive trophy haul during this period. Gavin was present for all of these memorable moments, but had already left to join Bray Wanderers before the Louth club entered into examinership in October 2008.

"Drogheda had big plans, in terms of the stadium and getting the right people in place. They improved what we did in training, the facilities, but it was more the country's woes than Drogheda's."

Following Whelan's solitary season at the Carlisle Grounds, he returned to a part-time Drogheda, competing at the opposite end of the table under Alan Mathews' stewardship.

"It was a different club when I went back. A lot of the people who'd been there were gone. The crowd's outlook went back to what it was when I first signed, which is a negative experience when you play in front of United Park's shed, as a home player. You expect to be lifted as a player, but that stadium was so negative at the start.

"As results improved, that changed to a very encouraging home crowd, who were excited and optimistic about the league, winning cups and in Europe. After striving for success under Paul, it was tough going back to a ground where you had so many great memories only a couple of years before."

Lasting a mere six months upon reappearing in claret and blue, the Dubliner opted for a complete change of scenery by turning up at Lisburn Distillery in mid 2009.

"There was the travelling, but there was also, even though it wasn't that long ago, a sectarian and religious divide in the dressing room. I was the one coming up from the south and probably on a bit more money than the rest of the lads, who were local.

"I found there was resentment and animosity, which I didn't enjoy at all. This was why I only had a short stint there.

"Having said that, there were some great people around the club, but the dressing room was a strange place, when compared to what I was used to."