Dublin side UCD go to Luxembourg on Thursday with a 1-0 advantage in the Europa League over F91 Dudelange. Watching the first leg was Peter Doyle – who explains the Students already have a strange footnote in international football history.
Ask any football fan outside Ireland about UCD, and they will invariably reply: ‘Isn’t that the side Sócrates played for?’
It wasn’t – but the myth surrounding the Brazilian superstar refuses to die.
As urban legends go, it’s a bit of a cracker. Its adherants claim the young Sócrates left Botafogo in Brazil’s top flight to play second-string football with UCD in order to study medicine in the Emerald Isle.
Despite being debunked by the great man himself (before his death in 2011, aged 57, the hard-drinking Sócrates revealed that he had never even set foot in Ireland let alone kicked a ball there), the far-fetched story resurfaces every so often. The Mirror even once asked its readers: ‘Which Brazilian legend played football for UCD reserves?’
A similar sense of the unbelievable surrounds the UCD part-timers when it comes to European football.
From losing a relegation play-off to European football and a €200k windfall in less than a year, University College Dublin (UCD) are back on the big stage 30 years after they shocked the FA Cup winners.
In 1984, in the now-defunct European Cup-Winners’ Cup, UCD held an Everton side that included the likes of Kevin Sheedy, Graeme Sharp, Neville Southall and Peter Reid, to a scoreless draw in Dublin before losing 1-0 at the Goodison home of the eventual tournament winners.
And who would have thought that a UCD team with undergraduates on scholarships in its ranks, currently third in Ireland’s second tier after recent relegation from the Premier, would have been the only Irish team to win a European tie last week?
Not many, that’s for sure.
After the Students were drawn against F91 Dudelange from Luxembourg in the first qualifying round of this season’s Europa League, one pundit cruelly suggested that the young side would embarrass themselves against a team with European pedigree – and embarrass the League of Ireland as well.
Meanwhile, several so-called experts used Twitter to castigate the side and the fact that they had only qualified for European football by the back door, courtesy of a third-place finish in the FAI’s Fair Play league, below automatically qualified Dundalk and Cork City.
And for a while at the UCD Bowl, it did look like the Students were out of their depth, the visitors racking up eight corners to home side’s zero during the first 45 minutes.
But thanks to strike from 19-year-old Ryan Swan on the stroke of half-time, UCD take a 1-0 lead to Luxembourg.
Qualifying for the next round still remains a huge ask, though, as UCD boss Collie O’Neill acknowledged in last week’s programme notes:
‘F91 Dudelange are a quality side, having dominated the Luxembourg league in recent times, and knocked Red Bull Salzburg out of the Champions League in 2012-13. They will be confident of advancing, and we will need to be at our very best in both legs to have any chance of going through,’ he said.
At the final whistle, however, a slightly more optimistic O’Neill revealed he used the negative tweets about his young side to motivate the players, whose average age is 21.
He said: ‘We had a big poster of tweets on the wall from when it was announced that we had qualified. Everyone was calling us a joke team, that we were an embarrassment to be in the Europa League. But here we are, the only club to win this week in the Europa league. We thrived on it. Basically it was us against everyone else’.
Not only did O’Neill’s side give themselves a fighting chance of playing in the next round, they also preserved UCD’s unbeaten European home record – one that began against Everton in 1984.
A similar result in Luxembourg and even Sócrates will be consigned to ancient history.