Ahead of their upcoming Europa League First Qualifying Round tie, UCD manager Collie O'Neill and midfielder Chris Mulhall insist keeping their recent good run of form in the Airtricity League First Division will remain the Belfield side's primary focus.
UCD AFC will bring European football back to Belfield for the first time in 15 years when they host Luxembourg’s F91 Dudelange at the UCD Bowl next Thursday night.
The Students – who currently ply their trade in domestic football's second tier following relegation from the Premier Division last season – join West Ham United and the Netherlands' Go Ahead Eagles as one of three teams to qualify for the first round of the Europa League qualifiers through UEFA’s Fair Play rules, which grants preliminary qualification to the highest-ranked team in a country’s domestic Fair Play table that has not yet qualified for European competitions.
The Netherlands, England and the Republic of Ireland were ranked as the three highest associations on the European Fair Play table last season, which rewards teams and associations for on-field discipline, positive play and respect towards officials and the opposition, allowing UCD to join Shamrock Rovers, St. Patrick's Athletic and Cork City in the first round of Europa League qualification.
UCD become the first Irish club side ever to qualify for European competition through the UEFA Fair Play table and UCD manager Collie O’Neill believes it is a testament to all the hard work done by the club over the last number of years.
''It’s not really just about how many bookings you get or how many sending offs you get, it’s to do with the whole match experience when people come and watch us,'' said O’Neill.
''It’s to do with the style of football we play and I think in the last couple of years in the Fair Play League we’ve always finished in the top three, it’s just that Ireland as a country never qualified in the top three [in the European Fair Play table] to get that free spot.
''I think it’s just reward for all the years of doing things the right way,'' added O’Neill.
UCD currently sit third place in the SSE Airtricity League First Division table and while O’Neill admits that next week will undeniably be a distraction for his young side, the focus firmly remains on getting back into the Premier Division next season.
''It’s going to be a huge distraction no matter how hard we try to get our players to forget about a Europa League game. It’s going to be virtually impossible and I know that we might struggle this weekend against Cobh.
"If I hear one player talking about the Europa League game in training though I’ll kill them. Our main priority is to get back into the Premier Division.''
According to O’Neill, the average age of UCD’s squad is 19 and there is not one player in his side that has played in a European game before, so quelling excitement levels around Belfield may be easier said than done for the ex-Shelbourne caretaker manager.
But after talking to Students midfielder Chris Mulhall, it seems that O’Neil’s message of focus on the task at hand has been well received by the squad ahead of UCD’s trip to Cobh on Saturday, as Mulhall insists the side are not getting carried away with next week’s qualifier.
''There is a bit of a lift and a bit of a buzz for everyone involved in the club from the players to the management to the fans. It is a bit of a lift, but we’re not losing sight at the moment because the league is still our top priority,'' the former Shamrock Rovers midfielder insisted.
''It’s a nice little bonus the Europa League, but the League is definitely still our priority,'' he explained.
''We have to treat it as professionally as any other game. We will do everything the same way, we will train the same way, but I don’t think there will be any added pressure, because there’s pressure for us to go and win any game anyway so there won’t be added pressure because it’s Europa League.''
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