It has been 41 years since Dublin University Athletic Football Club (DUAFC) managed to secure glory in the Collingwood Cup, the premier honour in Irish university football. It was January 1979. Mullets were in fashion, “YMCA” was top of the charts and Leo Varadkar had just been born. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom – DUAFC were hosting the Collingwood Cup and were making a strong title tilt.
In the group stage of the competition, two wins against NIHL Limerick (now UL) and Queen’s University, alongside a draw with NUU (now Ulster University) gave Trinity safe passage into the last four of the competition, where they would face Dublin rivals University College Dublin (UCD). A Dublin derby in College Park is enough to get the hot blood flowing on its own, but with the extra juice that comes with knockout cup football, this game had all the makings of a classic.
Hugo MacNeill, the goalscoring hero of DUAFC’s campaign, remembers the buzzing atmosphere around the game: “Because it was UCD, because it was in the centre of town and Trinity had a good team and were hosting it – it was a big opportunity. There was a huge crowd, it was a great atmosphere.”
Ken Le Gros, then the captain of DUAFC, has similar memories, of “the biggest crowd that had ever attended a match at College Park. There were definitely at least 1,000 people, they were two or three deep around the pitch”.
I couldn’t have played anywhere in defence and I certainly couldn’t have played anywhere in rugby, so they just told me to stay up front
A snippet from the Irish Times on the January 27th, 1979, says a “large gathering of supporters from the rival universities gave this semi-final game at College Park plenty of atmosphere, and they were not disappointed”.
The game took place on a Friday afternoon – what better way to get your weekend started? Students flocked from the lecture halls to College Park to witness a high-stakes match-up.
MacNeill, who would score the winner in the semi-final, as well as two goals in the final, was a dual-code rugby and football athlete: “It was a bit strange. I had a knee injury at the time and I was playing with the rugby team as well. The rugby team had a big game in the Dudley Cup against UCC coming up but I couldn’t play. I was hobbling around.”
Even in 1979, football wasn’t quite as physical as the oval ball, so MacNeill decided to brave the injury and join the DUAFC cause: “I couldn’t have played centre-half, I couldn’t have played anywhere in defence and I certainly couldn’t have played anywhere in rugby, so they just told me to stay up front as a forward.”
“I used to get a lot of goals and had a good positional sense. I wasn’t a brilliant player with the fine skills that a lot of people had. And that’s really what it was – I was hobbling around up front.”
MacNeill grossly understates the impact he had on the team. Trinity took the lead through midfielder George Humphrey, who latched on to MacNeill’s cutback for the opening goal of the semi-final.
“I don’t really remember the first goal”, admits MacNeill. “I think it was straightforward – just getting on the end of a good pass.”
But Trinity’s celebrations were cut very short, as UCD scored straight from the restart. We were back where it all started. Curiously, the memory of UCD’s quick retort has been blotted from the memory of both Le Gros and MacNeill.
Understandably, the winning goal is what stands out most clearly in the memories of both men. The future British and Irish Lion latched on to a cross from out wide and scuffed his header into the ground. MacNeill, UCD goalkeeper Jim McCabe, the rest of the players and the hundreds in attendance watched on in various states of agony and ecstasy as the ball bounced up off the turf and looped into the UCD net.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for UCD, especially as MacNeill had switched alliances from the Belfield university to Trinity a year earlier. There were some choice words aimed at him from his former teammates, but he tells me that him and Jim McCabe remain good friends to this day.
Le Gros describes it as “one of those peculiar headers that was headed downwards into the ground and took a weird bounce upwards off the pitch and somehow bounced over the despairing dive of the UCD goalkeeper. The whole thing seemed to take an age to happen, like in slow motion”.
MacNeill, UCD goalkeeper Jim McCabe, the rest of the players and the hundreds in attendance watched in agony or ecstasy as the ball bounced off the turf and into the UCD net
MacNeill’s memories are similar: “I threw myself at it and mis-headed it into the ground. It was one where if the keeper had just stood up, he would have caught it in his hands. But because he was committed and off-balance, he was expecting a decent header from me and was trying to get as much of his body across to block the goal.”
It was the winning goal in a semi-final that would eventually propel Trinity to Collingwood glory – one of the greatest achievements in DUAFC’s history. Nonetheless, MacNeill describes it as “the scruffiest, ugliest goal you’d ever seen”.
The goal came 10 minutes into the second half of the contest, and from that point onwards, Trinity endured unrelenting pressure from their Dublin rivals. MacNeill recalls the tense atmosphere on the pitch: “It was a very tight game. UCD were a good team with a great soccer set up. It was really tight. It had been a long time since Trinity had won the Collingwood so there were high stakes.”
Trinity stood firm, and thanks to a slovenly scuff from a hobbling centre-forward, they defeated UCD 2-1 and advanced to the Collingwood Cup final. The next day, they defeated Maynooth 2-0 thanks to two more goals from the one-legged wonder Hugo MacNeill.
Collingwood Cup glory has evaded DUAFC ever since 1979, but that campaign will always be remembered for a classic encounter at College Park.