At the end of last season the DCU soccer team were reflecting on yet another disappointing College and Universities Football League campaign and an equally deflating showing in the Collingwood Cup.
Fast-forward nine months, and largely the same squad has experienced somewhat of a metamorphosis, reaching the quarter-finals of the CUFL Premier Division for the first time ever.
The catalyst for this dramatic change has been the appointment of a new coaching ticket, led by manager Declan Roche and his assistant John Russell, injecting the squad with a well-needed shot of brio.
Soccer Development Officer, Fran Butler, recognised the need for an imminent shake-up to turn around the team’s fortunes and acted accordingly.
“Declan and John have come in and I think the boys have really responded well to them. They have brought in a little bit of professionalism, which is needed.”
Declan Roche was hired on the strength of an impressive CV amassed over a lifetime involved in the game. He played professionally in Scotland for six years for Glasgow Celtic and Partick Thistle, before returning to Ireland to play for Shelbourne, Cork City and Drogheda United.
Roche’s nascent management career began at Malahide United, where his first UEFA coaching badges were earned. He is currently working towards the UEFA Pro Licence.
Upon taking the job he had a clear modus operandi: “We hadn’t ever qualified for the latter stages [CUFL], and I kind of felt if I could get to do what I wanted to do, get all the support from Fran, which I did, and get the players to feed into something different, that we might have a chance. When I saw the quality of the players around me, I knew we could qualify, and we did that.”
This quality was evident in the season opener against rivals UCD, with DCU winning comfortably 3-0, in their most outstanding performance to date. This form continued with an impressive 3-1 victory over Coláiste Íde; a clear sign that the tide was turning. It was their third tie, away to IT Blanchardstown, before DCU was forced to navigate genuine adversity.
After going behind early on, DCU’s problems were compounded when defender Mark Logan was sent off. Their heads did not drop and they came from behind with a last minute penalty from Michael Isichei, securing a 2-1 victory.
According to team captain Robbie Gaul, this kind of perseverance was absent from the collective mind-set last season. “I think there is a stronger spirit because we believe more, up until then we had been playing well and we always felt we could get back into it. That match was a bad start, but we kept going and eventually got it. Last year and the year before we would have accepted it and wouldn’t have really pushed.”
Gaul is a captain that leads by example, no shouting or bravado, but always coolness personified at the heart of the defence.
“In the last two seasons we may have had an even stronger side,” he continued, “but we didn’t really gel and didn’t have as much of a game plan. This year everyone knows what they’re doing and what way we are playing.”
Assistant coach John Russell is well known to Airtricty League of Ireland fans; the 27-year-old currently plays for St. Patrick’s Athletic, having previously played for Sligo Rovers and Galway United.
An aspiring manager, he gratefully took the job, with some trepidation, which has since been alleviated. “I was coming into the unknown here; I didn’t know the standard, the players, Declan or Fran. But to be fair Declan has been really good to me. There’s a good chemistry in DCU; things are run right and you can see that from the top with Fran – it’s very organised.
“Declan wants the lads to play football the right way and his method and style is geared towards passing, it’s more enjoyable that way and players buy into that,” he said.
Not everything has gone to plan, the final two group games saw a dip in form which culminated in a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of group winners DIT. The loss cost them a first-place finish and was only negated by the fact that qualification had already been secured.
Robbie Gaul recognises the need to stay vigilant going forward:“We’ve been sloppier as the games went on. In the last game we knew we’d qualified and thought we’d win. Going forward we need to keep reminding people how we’re set up, to concentrate and get everyone focused.”
DCU travel to IT Letterkenny for the Quarter Finals of the CUFL on Wednesday, January 30th and have been drawn against University of Ulster Magee in the Collingwood Cup. First and foremost, Declan Roche has his sights firmly set on the CUFL. “I want to get to the final and win the thing, let’s be honest about it, that’s my aim and that’s why I came here. Our preparation will be good and we’ll be ready to go.”