After securing top flight status for his team on Friday evening with a 2–1 win over Shelbourne, UCD AFC manager, Martin Russell, talks to Shane Hannon about the team’s poor start, the unique aspect of UCD AFC and his future with the club.
UCD AFC finished up their season last Friday night on a positive note. A 2-1 win away to Shelbourne at Tolka Park ensured ninth place in the Airtricity Premier Division for the second season in a row and the team’s status in Ireland’s top division was maintained once again. Manager Martin Russell reflected on the season when speaking with The University Observer and his own role in the team’s success cannot be underestimated.
Russell himself was a talented player in his day and had spells at various clubs in England. A stint in the Manchester United reserves was followed by periods at the likes of Birmingham City on loan, Leicester City and Middlesbrough. He also spent time at clubs on both sides of the Irish border.
160 appearances for Portadown in the North and 140 for St. Patrick’s Athletic topped off a successful playing career. When asked if the Irish domestic game has changed much since his own playing days, Martin admits that, “Football in general has got quicker, and I think that’s the case in the Airtricity League as well. I think in the last ten years the ball has been on the deck a lot more in games, there’s a more passing philosophy that coaches are trying to get into teams.”
Having picked up a solitary point from their opening nine games of the season, it looked for a while as if it was going to take a miracle for UCD to avoid the drop to the First Division. A run of seven games, however, saw UCD’s form pick up during which the team amassed 13 points, getting them back on track.
Many would argue that only sweeping changes could bring about a transformation as stark as that, but Russell says he “just asked the lads to train well and keep believing that things would happen.”
It was that belief which ultimately carried UCD over the line of safety last Friday night, but there were other pivotal moments throughout the season that Russell knows were crucial in his side staying up. “Probably the first win against Shamrock Rovers was a critical one because that gave us the belief going into the second round of games. To get that win, you know there’s something to build on then.”
UCD undoubtedly play some of the most attractive football in the league, and Russell insists that this does not come without having the wisdom to sign players that are right for the club. “We sign young players that we think are going to fit into the way we want to do things.”
Knowing what players to sign is the difficult part, with the young talent seeping through the underage ranks in the country at the minute showing no signs of slowing down. “We go and watch schoolboy games, we hold scholarship trials… it’s a matter of whittling down depending on how many scholarships we can give out.”
Being a college side, it can be tough for UCD to compete with the other teams in the Irish league. “The bigger teams can go on and sign the better players. It’s always going to be difficult for our UCD setup to compete. To finish ninth this season with the inexperience that we have, that’s good for this group.”
Financially, UCD have far less cash at their disposal to hold onto their more experienced players, and they find it almost impossible to attract these types of players to the club for the same reason. Russell concedes that UCD AFC “don’t have major backers and it’s not an easy job when you’re competing against the bigger boys in the football sphere.”
One major plus that Russell and UCD AFC have on their side now in terms of trying to attract young talent is the new sporting facilities on campus. The new Sports Centre, which opened just last year, provides some of the best sporting facilites in Europe, and Russell is keen to show potential scholarship players just what this means.
“We do have some open days where we invite these young players to the college and show them the facilities, and we talk through with them what we can do for their development.”
The 50 metre swimming pool is perhaps the cornerstone of the new facilities and Russell is keen to see his players capitalise on its quality. “In terms of the swimming pool coming on board, for example, it’s good to have that facility, and we could probably make more use of it than we do.”
Considering most of the other clubs in the league possess the financial clout to dwarf that of UCD, this is one area in which The Students have a clear advantage over their league rivals. “If you look at all the other Airtricity League clubs, they all don’t seem to have their own facilities, they rent places and stuff. So definitely for UCD AFC to have the facilities there in the college is a major plus.”
It is no surprise that other teams struggle to compete with the UCD Sports Centre, as many teams are struggling financially and this fact cannot be ignored. The demise of Roddy Collins’ Monaghan United F.C. in June 2012 was a much-publicised example; the club pulled out of the League of Ireland, with financial reasons cited as the main factor in the decision.
Russell has some words of advice on the matter, saying, “We need to take stock of where we are and where we want to be, and where the best place to put the revenue is.”
When discussing the state of the Irish domestic game, Russell is fairly blunt, and he is of the opinion that “there has to be some radical reform. We’re not bringing in crowds, the facilities at certain grounds have got to be improved, and we’ve got to make the game more attractive to the nation to get supporters out.”
For the Irish game to be improved, Russell affirmed that more needs to be done. Other countries are leaving Ireland trailing behind in the football stakes, and that is completely our own doing he claims, “I don’t think we’ve given the game enough respect, respect that others countries give the game by putting more resources in. We are where we are because we deserve to be there. We haven’t done enough.”
At the beginning of last season, the aim for the club would most certainly have been to maintain UCD as a top-flight side. Russell is sure that if the club had more money available and less key players leaving annually, the team would be doing more than just consolidating their position in the Premier Division.
“If we’d held onto those players maybe we would’ve won a cup and challenged a little bit higher in the league. Every year there’s four or five of your key players leaving.”
Considering the circumstances, and the fact that this current squad is one that is admittedly quite inexperienced, the campaign panned out just as Russell and his backroom staff would have wanted. “The fact that we finished ninth and maintained Premier League status for the lads next year to keep the development going is the biggest thing.
“Going back to Dr. O’ Neill [the late former UCD Director of Sport] when he envisioned the scholarship program, I think he envisioned it with the case in point that UCD were at the highest level.”
One thing’s for sure; the future looks bright for UCD AFC. With promising young players coming through to the first team all the time, there’s no reason why the team can’t get a good cup run going and keep their Premier Division status once again next year.
With regards to whether he himself will be in charge again next season, Russell is characteristically honest, saying that “there’s a bit of talking in different areas to be done; we’ll have to see about what’s going to happen… we’ll sit down and have a chat over the next couple of weeks.” For now though, Martin Russell and his players can reflect on the 2012/13 season, and know that it was a job very well done.