“The skull and crossbones and the Rebel Army are marrying” spoke Dr. Michael Murphy in November 2016. In a brightly lit Devere Hall, under the glint of the freshly polished FAI Cup and with an air of optimism, University College Cork and Cork City FC launched a two year partnership deal. Under this deal, UCC’s name & brand would feature on the front of the jerseys, while Cork City FC would gain access to the Mardyke Arena, with a multitude of scholarships opened up. It was a shadowed deal which had been building since the formation of FORAS in 2010, a statement from both club and college in ambition and intent.
Since that November morning, Cork City have gone on to win the 2017 League of Ireland title, as well as retaining the FAI Cup, the President’s Cup and the Munster Senior Cup. Star striker Seani Maguire broke through in 2017, scoring twenty goals for City, before moving to Preston North End and gaining a foothold in Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland national team. It was a historic year for John Caulfield’s side, one which was laden in the UCC foundations.
Reversely, both UCC as a college and UCC Soccer has been guided under the watchdog of the Cork City FC. As a whole, UCC’s name and brand has been pushed onto the national stage, appearing constantly in Cork City’s title surge, and in their European exploits in Estonia and Cyprus. On the other side of the pangram, UCC soccer has enjoyed a renewed golden era from these link ups.
Managed by former Cork City right back Noel Healy, UCC Soccer enjoyed an equally standout 2017 by winning a historic double of the Collingwood Cup and the Munster Senior League, a success story that was rounded off by City signing Sean McLaughlin and Sean O’Mahony from the College. Elsewhere, Cork City FC’s Mark McNulty watches over as goalkeeping coach, and recently former City rightback Neal Horgan watched over the Freshers side. Most notably, current Cork City boss John Caulfield made his name known at the college, managing UCC to the 2011 Collingwood Cup and also the Munster Senior League First Division title. Caulfield’s successes at UCC launched him to the Cork City hotseat in 2014. The tried and tested eyes have provided a clear vision and pathway for success, with player development and training, and the proof is in the pudding for UCC, who are currently enjoying a renewed golden era.
Yet, what is seen here is not luck or chance, but rather a statement of intent and progression for Irish football. As illustrated by Cork City FC and UCC, partnerships linking clubs and colleges show League of Ireland football the pathway forward for both development and structure.
Similar modes of operation have been followed at Maynooth, UCD and Dundalk IT. Maynooth’s 2014 Collingwood Cup win, a first for the Kildare college, was orchestrated through the College’s link up with St. Patrick’s Athletic. In 2014 Saints duo Brendan Clarke and Ger O’Brien laid the plans in place for NUIM’s title win. Out of this success story came the wealth of talent for St. Pat’s, who signed Sean Hoare (Captain of Maynooth’s 2014 side and currently at Dundalk FC), Conor O’Malley (who later went on to sign for Peterborough in League One), Fuad Sule (now of Barnet) and Jamie McGrath (now Dundalk FC).
On the other hand, UCD have perfected the model, but through different circumstances; existing in both the College University Football League and the League of Ireland First Division, UCD’s talent development has been felt across Europe. Dundalk FC’s 2016 European run, which saw Stephen Kenny’s side reach the playoff round for the UEFA Champions League, was paved with former UCD and Collingwood Cup stars. Goalscorers David McMillan and Ciaran Kilduff were all instrumental in UCD’s 2010 Collingwood Cup success, as was defender Robbie Benson from their 2013 Collingwood victory.
Away from player development, college and club partnership deals have a wealth of benefits from a managerial role. At Dundalk IT, current Dundalk captain and League of Ireland regular Stephen O’Donnell has taken charge of DKIT’s soccer side after a two year spell with DCU soccer. O’Donnell’s experience will only be enhanced as he studies for his UEFA A Licence, with DKIT providing the platform to exercise his ideas while he undertakes the licence.
Irish football has been always been fighting an uphill struggle. Faced with a boom-bust financial climate, Ireland is the biggest country in Europe not to have a professional football league. Yet, there is talent here: from Shamrock Rovers reaching the group stages of the Europa League in 2011, to Dundalk’s run in the Champions League, to Cork City FC’s conveyer belt of talent for the national team featuring Shane Long, Kevin Long and David Meyler to name a few, the League has potential.
Through partnership deals and opening the doors between clubs and colleges, Irish football can build. Going back to the words of Dr. Michael Murphy, “The skull and crossbones and the Rebel Army are marrying;” it might not be just a forecast for Cork football, but Irish football as a whole. A three way relationship of training, advertising and use of facilities is shown as the right mix in talent progression. What is needed now is careful expansion across Ireland’s clubs and colleges.