Harding Cup champions: a review of the 2016/17 football season

DCU players celebrate their triumph in the Harding Cup. Credit: Third Level Football

At the end of the 2016/17 season, the football programme in DCU is undoubtedly on an upward trend. The freshers’ team brought home the Harding Cup for the first time in the university’s history, while the senior team were semi-finalists in the CUFL Premier Division and Collingwood Cup with an 8-0 victory on the way. In an interview with The College View in March, senior manager Declan Roche described the club’s achievements this season as ‘magnificent’.

The league season started for the senior team with a 2-1 victory at Oriel Park over Dundalk Institute of Technology. A brace from DCU’s ever-reliable striker Alan O’Sullivan on either side of half-time was enough to take the three points back down the M1.

This was despite DKIT spending much of the second half on the front foot. Ciarán Cluskey-Kelly levelled the scores just before the interval and the County Louth side’s direct style of play caused some problems for the visitors. The Dubliners’ back four dealt well with the pressure, though, and O’Sullivan’s goal just ten minutes after the restart was the only cushion DCU required.

The Northsiders couldn’t replicate this disciplined performance a week later when they welcomed Maynooth University to St. Clare’s. They improved their own tally in the goals scored column, netting three times, but conceded six in a game that coach Pat Cregg said “was over at half time”.

Goals conceded were a persisting problem for DCU all season. In the Premier Division quarter-final in February, DCU and IT Carlow shared seven goals between them, but this time DCU found themselves on the right end of a high-scoring thriller. They claimed a 4-3 victory to take into the semi-final against University College Cork, which they lost 1-0.

Roche insisted fatigue was a major factor in the narrow defeat.

“It was a very hard game for us,” he claimed.

“We had won the Harding Cup the previous Sunday and nine of those players had to be involved in the semi-final of the Premier League on Wednesday.”

The manager took the opportunity to praise his players though, suggesting that a one-goal defeat against the eventual Collingwood Cup winners was nothing to be ashamed of, especially three days after a 120-minute cup final.

“We faced a very good Cork side and it was unfortunate that we couldn’t progress to the final.

“We’re very proud of the players, though. We’ve had a tremendous season so far and to make it to the semi-final was a magnificent achievement.

Three days earlier, Roche took DCU’s freshers’ football team into the Harding Cup final for the first time ever, when they also faced UCC.

The conditions, which bordered on unplayable, spoiled the game as a contest and neutralised DCU’s usually potent attack. 90 minutes couldn’t separate the sides, but the Dubliners’ quality shone through in the extra half-hour.

Young striker Jack O’Connor gave his side the lead in the opening stages of extra-time, only for the Leesiders to equalise before the teams switched ends. As penalties loomed, centre-half Conor McKenna put his team back in the lead and it remained as such for the few seconds that remained.

There was no break in Glasnevin, however. Declan Roche and his charges headed for Maynooth just five days after the Premier Division semi-final defeat for the Collingwood Cup.

A shock 1-0 defeat against Trinity College brought an abrupt end to DCU’s season at the first hurdle in 2016, so a statement victory was required in the opening round match against the Royal College of Surgeons and it was duly delivered. A free-flowing, attacking performance saw DCU put eight past RCSI without reply.

In the quarter-final, Western opposition was swept aside but not without a struggle. A 90th minute equaliser for NUI Galway meant extra-time would be played for the second time in just over a week. This time, DCU fell behind, but found a second wind in the final few minutes to score twice and take a 3-2 victory into the semi-final.

There, the Northside outfit faced their perennial scourge. Having eliminated the Dubliners from the league only a week earlier, UCC again stood in the way of DCU and a senior cup final.

Rory Feely gave a glimmer of hope when he gave DCU the lead in the second half, but they couldn’t hold on. A late Daniel Pender brace broke Dublin hearts and sent the Corkonians into their third cup final in ten days, and they would go on to claim the trophy for the 12th time.

“It was a great achievement for us to win the Harding Cup, play five games in twelve days and then reach the semi-final of the Collingwood Cup,” Roche said.

“For us to match them all the way on two separate occasions is a huge achievement for us and it’s something we’ll look to as we try to improve.”

As league and cup champions, UCC are a natural yardstick for Roche and his team. They’ll be encouraged by two odd-goal defeats against the double winners as this young team matures next year and improves with the influx of talent from the new freshers’ team.

Aidan Geraghty
Image credit: Third Level Football