My favourite sporting moment: UCD’s magical European clash with Everton

I’m still wondering who (if anyone) nearly put the ball in the Everton net?

When asked to select his favourite sporting moment perhaps only a lawyer would choose two games in which his side failed to score a single goal and were knocked out of the cup in the first round. But for the long suffering UCD fan there will always be something magical about our European Cup Winners’ Cup encounter with Everton in 1984.

UCD's European debut was a reward for winning the FAI Cup for the only time in our history the previous season after a 2-1 replay victory over Shamrock Rovers. Being paired with Everton was considered a mixed blessing because, although potentially lucrative, such Anglo-Irish encounters tended to end badly for us. Only the previous year Drogheda United had been hammered 14-0 on aggregate by Tottenham Hotspur in the Uefa Cup.

When asked why he attended UCD soccer games Dermot Morgan replied "because I hate crowds". It would be fair to say that at the Belfield Bowl we were unknowingly embracing social distancing long before global pandemics made such behaviour mandatory. But for once things were very different the night of the first leg when 10,000 people crammed into Tolka Park to see an Everton side including Kevin Sheedy, Trevor Steven and Peter Reid being held 0-0. In the second leg at Goodison Park, Everton took an early lead through Graeme Sharp but despite dominating the game could not extend it.

And then at the death UCD came within inches of pulling off the greatest shock in the history of European club football with a shot that grazed the Everton crossbar. Later writing in his autobiography Everton goalkeeper Neville Southall recalled that "in the European Cup Winners' Cup first round we played University College Dublin - a student team basically. Everyone expected a walkover, but they held us to a goalless draw in Ireland and in the last few minutes of the second leg at Goodison had a shot that clipped my bar. We were winning 1-0 at the time but had it gone in they would have gone through on away goals."

Having squeezed through against the students Everton would go on to enjoy their greatest ever season. They went on to win the Cup Winners' Cup with manager Howard Kendall admitting that UCD were the toughest opponents that they faced all tournament. They also won the league championship and expected to earn a historic treble having also qualified for the FA Cup final. But waiting to spoil the party at Wembley was the most famous UCD soccer graduate of them all.

Part of the reason that the games against Everton are so special is because they are unlikely to ever happen again

With twelve minutes remaining and the game scoreless a rare Paul McGrath error put Peter Reid clean through on goal. Only a desperate lunge by Kevin Moran could stop Reid by rendering him momentarily airborne and seconds later the most celebrated member of the UCD Commerce class of 1976 became the first man ever to be sent-off in an FA Cup final. Seeming to draw inspiration from Moran's defiance the 10 men of Manchester United went on to win the cup thanks to a Norman Whiteside goal in extra time.

Things turned out less well for UCD who faced the eternal problem of having to sell our best players. Joe Hanrahan followed in the footsteps of Kevin Moran by swapping Belfield for Old Trafford and Ken O'Doherty moved to Crystal Palace. Shorn of such star performers the following year UCD were relegated relinquishing their proud status as the only university in Europe to play in their country's top division.

Part of the reason that the games against Everton are so special is because they are unlikely to ever happen again thanks to the forensic seeding system that now operates. In the past, conducting a simple open draw for all European competitions regularly threw up David and Goliath pairings such as Athlone Town v AC Milan, Cork City v Bayern Munich and Dundalk v Liverpool. But now there are four preliminary rounds for Irish teams to negotiate before such a glamorous tie is even possible.

Nowadays on their infrequent visits to Ireland the elite of European football rarely even feign interest. The last Anglo-Irish encounter occurred in 2011 when Spurs and Shamrock Rovers ended up in the same Europa League Group. So keen was Harry Redknapp to see his side eliminated from the competition that for the visit of Spurs to Tallaght Stadium he fielded a reserve side and only bothered to name four of seven permitted substitutes. The only time the likes of Barcelona will set foot in Ireland are for meaningless pre-season friendlies as in 2016 where the visitors motivation levels at the Aviva Stadium appeared not to extend much beyond banking their lucrative match fee.

And I suspect it will be a long time before Manchester United consider it worthwhile for their talent scouts to make a return visit to the Belfield campus. Whilst we still lose our best players every season our most accomplished recent alumni such as Gary O'Neill, Neil Farrugia and Liam Scales have ended up at Shamrock Rovers rather than Old Trafford.

But perhaps the greatest legacy of the Everton tie is the air of mystery that still surrounds it 35 years later. Whilst Neville Southall remembers UCD hitting his woodwork rather frustratingly he does not identify the player involved. In an interview in 2007 Peter Reid references a last minute chance that fell to Hanrahan. But when this was put to the Limerick native by The 42.ie Hanrahan only added to the doubt by modestly admitting "…if we did hit the bar I'm fairly certain it wasn't me".

In a world in which smartphones enable every spectator to act as their own amateur cameraman it seems incredible to think of a vital European match of which there is no permanent record. But as the tie was not televised even YouTube cannot provide a definitive answer to the question of who (if anyone) nearly put the ball in the Everton net?

James McDermott is a barrister and lecturer in the UCD School of Law

- A selection of favourite sporting moments from our readers’ competition will be published on Saturday, April 25th, with the three overall winners announced.

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