While glancing back at the history of football, many great teams come to mind.
Jock Stein’s Lisbon Lions conquered Inter Milan in 1967, by thoroughly outplaying Helenio Herrera’s defensively minded team. The Brazilian side of 1982 led by Socrates is considered in various corners to be one of the greatest footballing sides in international football history, even though they failed in their attempt to win the World Cup.
The squad assembled at Barcelona during coach Pep Guardiola’s reign, that included the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta are lauded by many as club football’s most exciting team in recent times. Largely this was down to how they cherished the ball, and exploited spaces left by opposing teams, and were sniper like in their ability to punish momentary lapses in concentration.
All of the aforementioned footballing teams possess many common traits, but the reason they are remembered fondly is because of their favoring attack over defence.
Rarely are defensively minded teams celebrated in the same vein, however very often in football, the team that makes the least amount of mistakes wins games.
There isn’t any doubt that DCU’s recent triumph in the Collingwood Cup was based around the above premise. A 2-0 half-time lead against tournament favorites UCD in their quarter-final clash may have hinted at the teams attacking prowess, but it was the back four that proved to be the foundation of DCU’s success as the tournament progressed.
The focus placed on becoming a solid defensive unit, by no means diminishes the individual ability of the current crop of DCU players but was born out of necessity. Several high profile injuries derailed the beginning of the season and hindered coaches Johnny McDonnell and Declan Roche’s ability to work on the technical side of things early on.
Some quality players had graduated and moved on from last year’s squad and the team was going through a “transition period” according to Fran Butler DCU’s long-time Soccer Development Officer
With new players arriving, “we didn’t really know what we had [in terms of] quality.” said Butler. The aim at the beginning of the campaign was to “have a good league campaign and build towards the Collingwood.”
This sentiment was echoed by captain Eric Whelan, who would go onto win the player of the tournament award. The structure at the beginning of the year was not as smooth as previous years according to Whelan. On a personal level, this rang true as the former Dundalk U-19’s man overcame a series of unfortunate injuries, that forced him to miss over a year, to play three games back to back last week and ultimately scoop two trophies at once.
While the preparations for the year were less than ideal, several players, who had experienced success in the 2017 Harding Cup as freshers, such as Jack O’ Connor and Sean McCarthy, provided experience during last week’s Collingwood run.
It is difficult to navigate three games in as many days, but “all these guys know what’s involved in the tournament.” said Butler.
The final in Dalymount Park was a cagey affair and Ulster University proved to be another challenging encounter for DCU who were “heavy underdogs” coming into the tournament.
Ulster University was comfortable playing the ball on the ground and for large swathes of the game dominated possession, although they lacked a cutting edge and largely failed in the attempts at opening up DCU.
“I thought we defended very well, throughout the game and they were the better footballing team. They certainly had more of the ball” Butler said.
The best chance of the game fell to Jack O’ Connor, however, his brilliant effort was scooped off the line. It would prove to be O’ Connors’ first big moment in the game, but it wouldn’t be the last.
As the game progressed tiredness crept into both teams play and the effects of two tough games against UCD and the University of Limerick began to become apparent, but the same was also true of UU, who narrowly overcame last years champions, University College Cork, 2-1 in their semi-final.
It was a “fair representation of 22 players who had played three games in three days. The first half was a decent tempo and the second- half everyone was tired.” according to Whelan.
As extra-time loomed, DCU looked the far fresher side, despite the fact they had been forced to play without the ball for the majority of the game, and when penalties were required this gave hope to the players who were about to step forward.
The players hadn’t worked on penalties extensively in the lead-up to the tournament. Progressing in the tournament on penalties against UCD provided another slight advantage, and each DCU player confidently converted their spot-kicks, with O’Connor burying the penultimate kick to seal the victory.
It was a devastating loss for Ulster and delight for the Dubliners. After so many setbacks on the injury front, Whelan was ecstatic having come through three matches unscathed and now a Collingwood cup champion.
“It still hasn’t sunk in yet. I wasn’t aiming for this. I am absolutely delighted it’s so nice that the hard work has paid off.”
For Butler, having had spells as a coach with DCU before assuming his role as development officer, the win was “massively satisfying” and he feels the future is increasingly bright for DCU.
As the dust settles on a hugely successful end to the year, the focus now begins to move toward next season’s preparation for DCU. An improved showing in the league would be hugely beneficial, before pushing forward in the universities attempt to retain the Collingwood Cup in 2021.
Image Credit: Ruairí Carberry