Dejection and agony are unusual words to describe the emotions of a winning team after a game of football. This strange dichotomy occurs rarely in sport, and usually marks a team’s gut-busting efforts falling just short of glory.
On the final day of the 2017/18 season, Dublin University Association Football Club (DUAFC) were victim to this unusual phenomenon.
DUAFC knew before the game that a win against already-relegated CYM Beechwood would secure promotion to the Leinster Senior League (LSL) Division 1A. The league title was also on the line – they knew that if they could better fellow contenders CIE Ranch on goal difference, the LSL 1B title would be theirs.
Conditions could not have been better for Trinity. Before the game began, CIE’s game had already kicked off, and Leicester Celtic, their opponents, found themselves two goals up early on.
At the start we were positive. We knew we were going to beat them, it was just down to how many goals could we score
According to Ronan Hanaphy, a former DUAFC striker and captain, this put the team in a confident mood. “At the start we were positive. We knew we were going to beat them, it was just down to how many goals could we score.”
The man DUAFC would have to beat was Ruairi Gallagher, Beechwood’s man between the sticks. Speaking to the goalkeeper, it seems that he was determined to go out on a high that day.
“For us, it was an abysmal campaign. Relegation had been confirmed weeks beforehand. So this match was just a matter of self-pride. Just trying not to let the match get away from us really.”
“Also, I don’t think anyone wants to be that team seeing the celebrations unfold, especially when we had been relegated weeks in advance”, he says.
By half-time, DUAFC found themselves one up, after Muhanned Bukhatwa latched onto a rebound and slotted home. Meanwhile, the news trickled through that CIE Ranch had staged a comeback to claim a 4-2 victory. As things stood, DUAFC needed two more goals to claim the title.
Both Trinity and Beechwood knew about the result at half-time. Gallagher and Hanaphy tell me about their contrasting team talks. For Hanaphy and DUAFC, it was just about going all-out attack – bombarding the Beechwood defence until the relegated side caved.
For Gallagher, Beechwood seemed calm. They felt no pressure in comparison. Their aim was simply to minimise the damage as best they could.
Very early on in the second half, Bukhatwa doubled his tally and Trinity’s lead. Now, it was just a matter of getting the all important third goal.
DUAFC dominated play, creating various chances but with no final finish at the end. “We scored quite early after the restart”, Hanaphy says, “but it’s that cliche the longer the game goes on, the harder it becomes to score”.
By the 80-minute mark, the third goal still eluded DUAFC, despite their best efforts. Chances went awry, and nerves got the better of them.
“It was more just frantic, trying to get that goal”, Hanaphy says. “There are times in the game where you’re missing these chances and you’re just thinking to yourself that it’s just not going to happen for us.”
I don’t think anyone wants to be that team seeing the celebrations unfold, especially when we had been relegated
“I actually thought a third goal for Trinity was inevitable”, Gallagher concedes. “It was a matter of when not if they scored. It was just phase after phase of attack.”
Hanaphy came closest on the 89th minute – a shot he remembers vividly. “I had a great chance towards the end. There was one where I caught the ball on the volley, in the box. I thought to myself: ‘That’s it. That’s going in. That’s the winner.’”
“Then as I saw the ball go wide, I knew that it was over. That was the chance.”
Jason Boateng played in defence that day for DUAFC. He could only watch on as his teammates missed chance after chance.
“It was frustrating looking on from the back. Guns were blazing and we had tonnes of shots in the last 10 minutes. I remember their keeper pulling off a ridiculous amount of saves.”
Indeed, the game would have been done and dusted but for Gallagher’s fine performance. Although a clean sheet eluded him, denying DUAFC a third goal was almost as good as scoring itself. Goalkeepers are often scapegoated for their mistakes, but this match seems to have given Gallagher a sense of power he had not experienced before.
“Was it silently satisfying? It was very satisfying. Goalkeeping can be a really unforgiving position so it was nice, even though losing the match, to be able to celebrate in a small way despite relegation.”
“For me, when someone refuses to shake your hand or starts swearing at you, that’s when you know you’ve had a good game. So yeah, that was very much silently satisfying.”
Despite the understandable disappointment in his tone, Hanaphy personally looks back on this game as a real learning curve for himself and his former teammates.
“It feels like a lot of players learned a lot from that game. It taught a lot of us to take more chances. And after that the next season we went on, we hadn’t finished where we wanted to finish, but we scored a lot of goals. We kept a lot of clean sheets at times.”
“A lot of players in that 2018 team went on to play in the top divisions or are still playing in the top divisions and a lot of them learned from that experience. I think that that game actually had a factor to play in that. It’s one of those games that you learn from.”
Hanaphy’s words stand to reason. Despite finishing 10th in Division 1A the following season, DUAFC were among the top scorers in the league with 52 goals, with Hanaphy bagging a rake of them himself.
I actually thought a third goal for Trinity was inevitable. It was a matter of when not if they scored
DUAFC’s frustration was understandable, but the extent of their achievements should not be understated. After the match, manager Richie Maguire told The University Times that “if you’d said to me at the start of the season that we’d have stayed up in the university league [Colleges and Universities Football League] and gotten promotion I’d absolutely have taken it”.
For Hanaphy, it took a lot longer for it to sink in. “It felt as though we had lost the promotion, it felt as if we had lost the game, it felt as if we had lost the season. We didn’t feel like we had achieved our goal, even though in the grand scheme of things we did!”
While Hanaphy did not get his last-minute grandstand finish – a la Aguero(oooo) against QPR – one game should not overshadow the fantastic season they had.
As many players went on to climb the footballing ladder, this game will serve as a cruel memory – but also a vital step for their footballing development.