What young soccer player doesn’t dream of those big nights in Europe?
For Clonaslee’s Niall Corbet, he got to experience an unlikely run in the Europa League with UCD in 2015.
Corbet, who played in goals for the Laois footballers in this year’s National League campaign prior to the season being paused, was the UCD goalkeeper as they beat Luxembourg side F91 Dudelange in the opening round of the Europa League over two legs in 2015 before then losing to Czech side Slovan Bratislava.
UCD qualified for Europe in bizarre style, by being the fourth-placed club in the Irish Fair Play table. But with the three ahead of them already qualified, it meant UCD got a passage to the Europa League despite being relegated from the Premier Division.
Corbet, who was in his first season as UCD’s first choice keeper, recalled the experience on a recent LaoisToday Talking Sport Podcast. He described how their young side suddenly had a full house watching them having previously played in front of very small attendances.
“We played the first leg at home. We didn’t know what to expect. The UCD Bowl is tiny. It was sold out. 1,000 people there.
“That was massive for us. Normally it was parents, a man and his dog and a few old fans. It was never anything more than 200 people. Playing in front fo a crowd was a bit of a shock to our younger players.”
Former UCD manager Dermot Keely predicted that they’d “embarass the league” and the Luxembourg side were possibly a bit over-confident too.
“They travelled over probably expecting us to be useless,” said Corbet. “First Division, not even in the top league in your country (and having) University and College in your name doesn’t help.
“We did a small bit of research. They didn’t look great albeit they had about seven Luxembourg internationals. We were looking at YouTube clips of some lad banging one past Joe Hart. They played England in the previous Qualifiers for the Euros and had lost 7-1.”
Yet UCD won 1-0 at home and then got an away goal early in the second leg. F91 Dudelange suddenly needed three goals to go through.
“The away leg was mad,” recalled Corbet. “We go 1-0 up and you’re thinking there’s a chance here we might go through, scoring an early goal.
“Then someone gets sent off and they get two goals before half time. I had a terrible start to the game. I couldn’t do much about goals but just nervous and came out for a few balls I shouldn’t have come out for.
“The second half was mental. We were pinned in. They were shooting from everywhere. But the shots were outside the box. There was never really one on ones. We were so deep, hanging on. As a keeper that’s what you like. You don’t want crosses and headers. Prefer lads shooting from distance. We were lucky in that sense.
“It came to last 10 or 15 minutes and we were just nearly playing for touch. We were kicking the ball into the corner, hanging in. Realistically the game was worth another €250,000 to UCD. Talking €600,000 to a University, set scholarships up for next 10 or 15 years. Massive game and everyone knew it.
“It was 2-1. They needed to just score one more in the second half and it was lights out for us. We weren’t going to score. We weren’t getting near. We couldn’t get into their half.
“As the second half went on, we were relaxed. It is what it is … mad game, really good experience. Cool thing to be a part of as a young footballer playing in Europe and definitely didn’t expect to get through.”
UCD then travelled to the Bratislava for the second round and although they only lost the first leg 1-0, they were beaten 5-1 at home.
Among the Bratislava players was Juan Mucha, who had previously played with Everton.
“Just to be on the same pitch gives you confidence,” said Corbet. He would go on to play a couple of full seasons with UCD and was named in the First Division team of the season in 2017. He later moved to Waterford and then Bohemians but since 2019 he has been back playing football with Clonaslee.
He helped them to last year’s Laois intermediate football final as an outfield player and was called into the Laois panel as a forward ahead of the 2020 season.
However, new manager Mike Quirke switched him back to goals and he had played in all five of Laois’s league games before the lockdown.
You can listen the interview in full here.
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