When the Students Won the Cup; The Incredible Story of University College Dublin’s Class of 1984

In a regular column, Ryan Clarke will look at all the different aspect of Irish football; from history to current developments, interviews and league reviews. In this first edition he tells the story of one of the most remarkable domestic cup triumphs in modern football history.

University College Dublin

UCD and the Class of ‘84

University College Dublin Association Football Club, or more commonly known as UCD AFC, dispelled the myth that “you can’t win anything with kids” 11 years before Alan Hansen uttered that famous line. They achieved this in 1984 by becoming the first university in Europe to reach a senior domestic cup final, win it and then proceed to compete in European competition. The club was founded in 1895 under the name of Catholic University Medical School Cecilia Street Football Club, and in one of their first matches they beat Trinity College Dublin 2-0 who are still to the present day fierce rivals of UCD. During this period as Catholic University, the club would play a vital role in the formation of the Leinster Junior League (now Leinster Senior League) in 1896 which enabled the club to compete in non-intervarsity competition.

They became the club that we know today in 1908 when the Catholic University was annexed by UCD and as a consequence of the merger, the Catholic University team was renamed UCD AFC. Subsequently UCD would go on to become the most successful university team in Ireland by winning the Collingwood Cup, Ireland’s most prestigious intervarsity competition, a remarkable 34 times (at the time of writing). To put that into perspective the second most successful team in the competition, Queen’s University Belfast AFC, have won the Collingwood Cup 13 times. UCD also won a litany of other cups including the Leinster Senior Cup, Harding Cup and the FAI Intermediate Cup prior to the cup triumph of 1984, further highlighting their footballing pedigree.

Dr. Tony O'Neill, Soccer. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Dr. Tony O’Neill, Soccer. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

UCD’s journey towards winning the FAI Cup began in 1970 when the club was elected to play in the League of Ireland B. This was a major step for UCD as it meant they were just one level away from competing in senior football – an unprecedented feat for a university football team. It was also around this time that the most important and influential figure in the history of UCD joined the club in a general manager type capacity, Dr. Tony O’Neill or as he was affectionately known in Irish football circles, The Doc.

Theo Dunne was also added as first team coach to manage proceedings on the pitch while The Doc looked after the going ons off it. While I was speaking to the cup winning UCD goalkeeper Alan O’Neill, he said that “90% of that cup win [FAI Cup] was down to The Doc. He was UCD through and through.” I also spoke to UCD’s talismanic striker at the time, Joe Hanrahan, and he regarded Dr. Tony O’Neill as an Arsene Wenger type of individual who had an impact on UCD in a manner similar to Wenger with Arsenal. This could not be a more fitting testament to the man behind the scenes who put all the pieces in place for UCD to be successful. It was in July 1979 that UCD finally began competing in senior domestic football when they gained entry to the League of Ireland when Cork Celtic were banished from the League due to their financial irregularities.

Perhaps the most significant strategy that The Doc put in place for the club was the scholarship scheme that allowed talented, young footballers to come into UCD and obtain a university education while playing football at the highest level in Ireland. Prior to the scheme’s implementation there was evidence that this approach would yield huge benefits for UCD and the players. Kevin Moran, who was capped 70 times for Ireland and won the FA Cup with Manchester United and the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers, was a prime example of how this approach would work, despite him technically not being a scholarship recipient. The success of Kevin Moran moving to Manchester United the season before UCD entered the League of Ireland would have played a role in The Doc introducing the scholarship scheme. The UCD scholarship scheme was introduced in 1979 with Keith Dignam being the first recipient and he would go on to play in midfield against Shamrock Rovers in the 1984 FAI Cup final.

The step up to League of Ireland football was a difficult one initially for UCD’s team of students. During their first four seasons playing at the highest level in Ireland they finished no higher than 12th place in a 16-team league. This led The Doc to make the decision that would propel the club towards winning the FAI Cup. UCD would look to break their policy of being a student-only team and bring outsiders into the club by signing experienced professionals. Former Ireland international defender Paddy Dunning was signed from Dundalk where he had won numerous league and cup titles and played in their 1979/80 European Cup run where, they ultimately lost 3-2 on aggregate against Celtic. In addition to Dunning, goalkeeper Alan O’Neill signed from Shamrock Rovers along with Robbie Gaffney. Robbie Lawlor signed from Dundalk with Frank Devlin coming to UCD from Drogheda United. The experience of these players blended fantastically with the raw talent of the players coming through from the scholarship scheme. Players such as Ken O’Doherty in defence, Keith Dignam and Aidan Reynolds in midfield with Joe Hanrahan up front. The veteran Dermot Keely was also brought in as player-manager but after just 8 games he deserted the club when Shamrock Rovers came calling for his services. Theo Dunne returned as first team coach when Keely departed for Shamrock Rovers.

Paddy Dunning vs Graeme Sharp

Paddy Dunning vs Graeme Sharp

While speaking to Alan O’Neill and Joe Hanrahan, both players said that going into the 1983/84 season there was an aspiration within the team that it would a successful year for the club. By this point the students were beginning to mature as players and with the addition of the experienced professionals coming in, it added some steel and a strong spine resulting in a nice balance for the team. With UCD riding high in the league, they began their FAI Cup campaign in the 5th round of the competition (senior teams entered at this stage) against defending champions Sligo Rovers. With the Students losing 3-1 after 55 minutes they produced an impressive comeback to draw the game, after two corners from Joe Hanrahan were converted by Ken O’Doherty and Robbie Lawlor, and force a replay against Sligo Rovers. Keith Dignam also scored UCD’s first goal of that game with a scorcher from 25 yards out. In the replay, Sligo Rovers were annihilated in their own stadium against the irresistible UCD who came out 5-0 victors, with Joe Hanrahan scoring twice, and advanced to the quarter-final where they would face Home Farm in Tolka Park. The Students won this match after Robbie Gaffney’s cross was deflected into the net by a Home Farm defender and Gaffney himself later doubled their lead. However, there was a tense end to the game for UCD after they conceded a strange goal and had to rely on their steadfast defence to see out the rest of the match. The strength of the UCD defence would become a recurring theme. In the semi-final the Students were drawn against Waterford United who had won the FAI Cup as recently as 1980. The semi-final clash with Waterford was a tight and nervy game, as to be expected, with a Joe Hanrahan goal from 25 yards that somehow the Waterford keeper didn’t save settling the tie in UCD’s favour. In the final UCD would face Shamrock Rovers who had just secured their first league title in twenty years and were considered by many to be the best team to ever play in the League of Ireland, until the present day Dundalk team came around. It was also quite poetic that Dermot Keely would be playing against the team he started the season managing. UCD also made their own bit of league history that year by finishing 6th, by far and away their best league finish.

Going into the final in Dalymount Park, remarkably, it would be UCD’s third cup final of the season. Unfortunately, they had lost the previous two prior to the FAI Cup final, losing in the Leinster Senior Cup final to Bohemians and the League Shield Final to Limerick on penalties only a week before the FAI Cup final versus Shamrock Rovers. Two key players for UCD picked up injuries in that match, Aidan Reynolds and instrumental goalkeeper Alan O’Neill. Incidentally, O’Neill only declared himself fit for the final when his brother, Dermot who played in goal for Bohemians at the time, urged him to play. The final itself was a poor game devoid of many chances at either end, and the chances that Shamrock Rovers did have were saved fantastically by Alan O’Neill. The lack of chances was down to UCD’s heroic and resolute defence which stifled the expansive Shamrock Rovers. The Students employed a style similar to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, which relied on strong defence and rapid counter-attacks. The match ended 0-0 with it going to a replay in Tolka Park the following Friday. The replay was much more exciting and provided a thrilling climax to UCD’s tremendous cup run. Alan O’Neill was in great form yet again, which provided the platform for Joe Hanrahan to open the scoring in the 40th minute with a sumptuous left-footed finish under Shamrock Rovers keeper Jody Byrne, after he got his angles wrong. Ken O’Doherty then missed a penalty to double UCD’s advantage before Shamrock Rovers equalised from a penalty of their own just before the hour mark. UCD goalkeeper Alan O’Neill was knocked unconscious during the frenetic second half, but this was to provide a silver lining for the Students at the conclusion of the match because there was six minutes of injury time added on. It was in the sixth minute of injury time that Ken O’Doherty made amends for his earlier penalty miss and prodded home the winner from Keith Dignam’s free kick to win the FAI Cup for UCD and seal their place in the Cup Winners’ Cup the next season.

UCD vs Everton

UCD vs Everton

The reward for UCD on their maiden voyage into Europe would be a tie against star studded FA Cup winners Everton. This would be a David vs Goliath tie in the truest sense of the word, with Everton fielding players of the calibre of Neville Southall, Peter Reid, Kevin Sheedy, Andy Gray and Graeme Sharp. The Students would adopt the same approach against Everton that had won them the cup against Shamrock Rovers, which meant that UCD would rely on the dogged determination of their defence. The first leg was played in Tolka Park, where UCD had won the cup, and the pitch certainly aided their cause in stifling Everton since it was an extremely tight pitch. The Students were able to hold Everton to a goalless draw meaning they would only need a score draw over in Goodison Park to knock Everton out and progress to the next round. Despite Alan O’Neill making a string of stunning saves in the second leg Everton took the lead through Graeme Sharp, marking the only time the UCD backline was penetrated. UCD had a glorious chance of their own in the dying embers of the game but Joe Hanrahan’s shot skimmed the crossbar. Had that gone in, the Students would have progressed on away goals. That year Everton went on to win the Cup Winners’ Cup and the old English First Division. Highlighting just how impressive UCD’s performance was, Everton manager Howard Kendall said the matches his team played against UCD were the toughest they had during their all-conquering season.

After the 1984/85 season Ken O’Doherty was signed by Crystal Palace and Joe Hanrahan, who was Young Player of the Year in the cup winning season, was snapped up by Manchester United and went on to have a successful career when he returned to the League of Ireland, winning cup medals with Derry City and the league with Dundalk in 1995.

Tragically, Dr. Tony O’Neill passed away in 1999 after a short illness at just 53 years of age. Perhaps his most enduring legacy, and that of the 1984 cup winning team, is the scholarship scheme and the opportunities that it offers young players early in their careers. Just from my research into the topic it leads me to the conclusion that UCD has one of the best youth academies in Irish football. Joe Hanrahan said to me that; “Other clubs have recognised that UCD is a fantastic nursery for allowing players to educate themselves and develop themselves as footballers.” The prime example of this can be seen with the core of 4 players who began their careers with UCD, that make up the Dundalk team that has won 3 league titles in a row and gone on a fantastic European run which took them all the way to the Champions League playoff and into the Europa League group stage. These players are, goal scorer David McMillan, midfielders Robbie Benson and Ronan Finn and defender Andy Boyle who was recently called up to the Irish international squad. Particularly in the case of Robbie Benson, he was primed for European football with UCD when they beat F91 Dudelange of Luxembourg on away goals in the first qualifying round of the Europa League in 2015. Ultimately the Students were eliminated in the second qualifying round 6-1 on aggregate by Slovan Bratislava. With Benson’s European experience from UCD he would go on to score crucial goals against Bate Borisov, Legia Warsaw and Zenit St. Petersburg for Dundalk. Ciaran Kilduff, who scored Dundalk’s winner against Maccabi Tel-Aviv, also spent time with UCD. Cork City also had their own European adventure in 2016, making it to the third round of Europa League qualifying and their most influential midfielder, Greg Bolger, began his career with UCD. The scholarship scheme isn’t solely confined to Irish players as a recent recipient, Ayman Ben Mohamed, broke into the Tunisian international team while playing for Bohemians, after he too began his career with UCD. The latest player to depart from UCD for England was midfielder Dylan Watts, who left to sign for Premier League champions Leicester City in August 2016, proving that UCD’s scholarship scheme is still producing top quality talent for the future.

Ryan would like to thank Alan O’Neill and Joe Hanrahan for generously giving up their time to talk to him about their experiences with UCD.


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