Longread: When the Students sunk the Yellow Submarine - the story behind UCD’s win versus Villarreal in 2011
- Andrew Dempsey
- Wed, Apr 27 2022
Originally published, May 26, 2021.
On 15 July 2011 UCD found themselves embroiled in a relegation dogfight after a damaging defeat away to Dundalk – but one day later – they were worlds away from that reality.
The following day saw the Students welcome Villareal to the UCD Bowl – and inflict a shock friendly defeat on Santi Cazorla, Capdevilla and Marcos Senna's Villarreal.
Add Nilmar, Cani, Diego Lopez and Carlos Marchena to that list – a UCD side scored four that day after drawing a blank at Oriel Park.
extratime.com tells the story behind one of the finest friendly victories in League of Ireland history by talking to those involved as UCD became the talk of Ireland - after they stunned one of Europe's footballing elite.
A weakening force
Without trying to sound disrespectful, by no means was this a UCD side at the peak of their footballing powers.
If anything, UCD were still reeling following the losses of Ronan Finn, Greg Bolger and Ciaran Kilduff.
Rather than pushing on towards the higher top-flight positions, the main aim was Premier Division survival.
There were a few survivors from their 2009 First Division winning side, albeit most of whom were on the periphery in '09.
"It probably wasn't one of the best UCD teams that I played with during my time there, but we still had good players," Paul Corry said.
"We were able to keep the ball well – and I think that surprised Villarreal a little bit."
UCD keeper at the time Ger Barron echoed these sentiments: "Villarreal would have known nothing about us. They were probably expecting the stereotypical Irish style of a physical game and a lot of long balls.
"But I know that they were pleasantly surprised with our style of play, passing it out from the back and trying to keep the ball."
The weekend UCD welcomed Villarreal to the UCD Bowl, it was their league game the previous day that was seen as the more important of the two matches.
A league clash against Dundalk at a deserted Oriel Park saw the Students crash to a 2-0 defeat.
While Martin Russell's charges would stay up that season, the loss away to the Lilywhites was a real blow to a side who had spent much of the year looking down rather than up in the league.
"We didn't give the friendly much of a thought because we had such a big game the night before against Dundalk," Barron says.
"It was a game that just sprung upon us on Saturday, which is probably the best way after what happened the night before.
"We weren't overthinking it because we literally just dusted off the bodies the morning after and went again that afternoon."
Robbie Creevy – who also played the night before at Oriel Park added: "It wasn't in our minds at all until 10 or 11 o'clock the night before after we lost in Dundalk.
"We didn't have long to think about it at all; it came on us quite quickly."
Saturday mornings for any UCD side generally involves a warm-down session following a game the night previous.
And fresh from that chastening defeat away to Dundalk, Martin Russell opted to make just the two changes against the might of Villarreal.
However, the game itself wasn't planned to happen months in advance – the game almost fell on the Students in a sense.
"They were meant to be playing somebody else," recalls Paul O'Conor.
"European games were played at the time, so we only found out a week or two beforehand that we would be playing them.
"We didn't care to be honest that we had to play them a day after a league game.
"We were UCD, and we knew we were in a dogfight to try and stay up. We were just more excited about the game. We didn't think anything about the game before the morning of it."
With the friendly buried in an avalanche of games – the squad Villarreal brought with themselves only began to emerge the day of the match.
"It was only during the morning of the game that you realised what was coming around the corner," Corry added.
"It was a great experience with everything. The excitement started with the anticipation of how many people will show up and who would be playing from their side.
"Are they going to rest their bigger players, or are they going to play them? Who's going to be playing from our side? That's when the excitement began to grow.
"There was also a lot of Spanish exchange students around at the time - there was a good buzz."
Villarreal stayed in Carton House – and of course, brought most of their first-team squad with them to Ireland.
So when they unveiled their first-half line-up - Diego Lopez, Carlos Marchena, Joan Capedvilla, Mario, Joselu, Gerard Bardas, Marco Ruben, Cani, Kiko, Borja Valero and Bruno – it came as no real surprise.
With the defeat against Dundalk still fresh in the memory – Corry, in particular, recalls being in awe of the intensity of Villarreal's warm-up.
"When the team sheet came in during the warm-up, I started to think OK, this is an opposition and quality that we would not have faced before.
"There were World Cup winners in there; they had been playing in the Champions League in the not-so-distant past.
"They probably underestimated us," he adds. "That's the feeling that I got.
"They were probably right to do so because I think when you see college or university in a name, it's only natural to think it would be a walk in the park."
"It dawned on me that we were playing these guys when we were walking down the steps," Barron reflects.
"You were there looking over your shoulder seeing lads like Diego Lopez, Capdevilla, Bruno and Cani beside you – and we were thinking 'what do these poor lads think of us' (laughs).
"They probably wouldn't have known anything about us other than us being a bunch of students, and they were probably cheesed off that they had to play us. It was surreal."
Creevy adds: "You couldn't believe that you were walking out to the Bowl with these players.
"I think in the huddle before the game; it showed where our heads were at. We went in together and said, let's make sure this doesn't get out of hand or embarrassing.
"We thought it could potentially be a cricket score after we lost to Dundalk the night before.
"Saying that it was a free shot. We had to enjoy it because you don't play against those players every week."
For all the talk of cricket scores and not trying to embarrass themselves, incredibly, UCD started the better of the two sides.
And it was Creevy who went close early in the game – but he could not capitalise on his chances.
As lady luck had it, the Students were then punished with some lax defending in the wall from a Borja Valero free-kick.
Valero's effort would deflect off a UCD body to wrongfoot Ger Barron allowing the Spaniards take a lead in the 13th minute.
But the Students would roar back – and by the 27th minute, they were 2-1 in front – despite there being fears that the game may have turned ugly on a result front for College.
"Sami Belhout had a great game at right wing-back against Capdevilla, and I got my head on one of his balls in to score," O'Conor reflects on his equaliser.
"It was a weird one because I had never scored a goal for UCD before that. The lads quickly told me that it didn't count (because it was in a friendly) – so that took me right back down to earth.
"But at that point, we probably thought they would kick into gear and make it 5 or 6-1."
As the Students went in ahead at the half-time break thanks to a Mick Leahy header – they quickly realised they were playing a side that was not fond of losing, even if it was 'only a friendly'.
"Just before half-time, there was an incident by the steps with myself, Cani and one other. It was then when it spilt over. You could see that it was then when they were starting to get frustrated," Corry explains.
"For them, it was embarrassing. A young side was beating them – a university side – and they were a European powerhouse.
"It was then when it dawned on me that they were taking it seriously."
The half-time lead
So Martin Russell's side took a half-time lead into the UCD Bowl dressing room – something that nobody would have envisioned from the night before.
And that surreal experience was something that many of the players remember.
"We had a tight group at the time and a small one as well. But we were all great friends," Corry adds.
"Sami had an unbelievable game in the first half against Capdevilla, and I'm convinced he came off at half-time because he was having such a great game, and thought, I'm not going to match that again!
"But we were all great friends, and it was a friendly game, and we were winning. It was all a bit of a laugh, and we were all a bit starstruck at what was happening."
Barron also reflects: "We went in ahead at the break – and we were thinking 'Jesus, we're in this game'. People were rattling off names that we were playing against.
"But by the time we came out for the second half, we were playing a completely different eleven – and it was arguably a better side.
"Santi Cazorla, Marcos Senna and Cesar all came on – it was unreal. They also saw what happened in the first half and probably were saying to themselves, 'we'll teach these boys a lesson', but we held our own and great a good few chances."
Cazorla was probably one of the most gifted players of his generation in Spain. However, injuries did scupper much of his talents when it came to showcasing them.
The attacking playmaker would join Premier League Arsenal after his time with the Yellow Submarine – but he did take to the field of play at the UCD Bowl.
"I have several Santi Cazorla memories from that game," O'Conor adds. "It was towards the end of the time I was on the pitch, and he just glided by me before cracking a shot just past the post.
"Ger Barron started giving out to us – and I just looked over at him, saying ‘don't even think of giving out to us’.
“We just started laughing because it was Santi Cazorla – there was nothing we could have done to stop him.
"He was a magician. Sometimes players are just too good to be stopped."
Corry added: "He was just on a different level. This was not someone who was imposing (physically) – he was a really small guy.
"His ability to create chances and score goals was something that we probably never came up against before.
"He was backed up by Marcos Senna, who was a real dictator and kept the game ticking. The ease at how these guys got through the game was a good indicator of where they were at."
After taking a 2-1 lead into the break, Ruben would level matters in the 46th minute.
Tomas Boyle then put his side back in front on the 64th minute as he headed home Dean Marshall's free-kick.
Suddenly, it was on, but it wasn't on. That man Cazorla proved his class as he danced around the UCD defence to finish into the right corner of Barron's goal.
3-3 with 20 minutes to play. You can be sure that UCD were happy with that.
And then, with just five minutes to play of the ninety, the Bowl erupted – well, sort of.
Despite a substantial Spanish contingent present inside the ground, the Students retook the lead.
According to the match report from the UCD AFC website, ‘a deep cross from a corner on the left managed to miss everyone before being turned into the goal by Villarreal defender Joan Oriol.’
And just like that, the impossible dream was on.
"I was on the bench at the time, and Cesar was in goal by then," Creevy reflects. "He flapped at the ball a little bit, and one of their lads got his head on it.
"All I remember then was jumping off the bench and realising how late in the game the goal was.
"It was a case of thinking, 'Jesus, we have a great chance of a famous victory here' – so it was just down to the lads if they could hold on."
O'Conor also said: "When it went in, I couldn't believe it. Rather than celebrate, I was there thinking this was crazy.
"When they went 1-0 up, we thought that was it, but we kept plugging away. We were expecting them to pull away and score for or five goals, but that just never happened."
Have we a chance here?
It was only after the Students took the lead late on when they realised the shock was on.
"They went close in the 89th and 90th minute with two one-on-ones, so it was only in injury when I thought we might be able to hang on here," Barron – who proved to be the hero between the sticks – said.
"It was literally at the full-time whistle when we could enjoy the moment of winning because they could open you up at will during the game.
"We were under the cosh so much late on that we probably couldn't enjoy the moment it until the full-time whistle."
And those sentiments were echoed by O'Conor: "It was into injury time when I thought we had a chance of winning.
"I remember bypassing my midfield and going straight to Ger, who was in goal. Everybody was ten yards in front of him, and then there were more than 10 yards in front of them and so on.
"It was all about defending, which we weren't that good at – but the last five minutes was all about that.
"They still found their way through the gaps, but we rode our luck a little bit. It was one of those things you'd love to be a part of."
And just like that, UCD had a 4-3 win defeating a Villarreal side packed with internationals, World Cup winners and future European Championship winners.
Celebrations went long into the night among the UCD squad, who had a mid-season break to look forward to as well.
Although, there was still time to get a momento of sorts from the game – as explained by Robbie Creevy.
"I was keen to try and swap a jersey after the game – but Diarmuid McNally (UCD Director of Football) was always thinking about the next game, so I couldn't.
"It also didn't work out as well because Villarreal only had so many sets of jerseys with them – but I ended up getting my boot signed in the end," he laughs.
Although, for Corry, that was something that he never thought of looking for.
"To be honest, when I was that age, I was probably a little bit embarrassed because you don't know what to do really.
"You don't want to show too much excitement either after it because you don't want to feel as if it was a complete fluke.
“But when we went into the dressing room afterwards, it was a completely different story.
"I wish I had grabbed a piece of kit, but the memories are enough for me now."
In the end, the result did not mean an awful lot in the grand scheme of things one may argue – and that is probably a fair argument to make.
But for many on the UCD side that achieved the impossible – it was the fondness of the achievement that sticks with them the most.
"It stands out," Creevy finished. "But it stood out for different reasons to most. It's a fond memory that I always look back on as one of my best times at UCD while playing with your friends. It was amazing."
Corry also said: "It gave us a few headlines that we would have never usually got because we were such a small club.
"Any positivity that we could have got was taken, and it was just a nice experience doing with people with who I am still very close friends to this day."
Now retired, O'Conor also reflected: "Staying up with UCD every year was a tough ask. We couldn't compete with some of the other clubs and what they were doing.
"So that was probably my biggest achievement at the club, never getting relegated. But in terms of a single game – obviously beating Shamrock Rovers at times was great but beating Villarreal was a definite highlight.”
For some, however, it would prove to be the highlight of some careers – albeit jokingly.
"I remember saying on Twitter that when you reach the pinnacle of your career by defeating Villarreal in a meaningless mid-season friendly – I don't know whether to be ashamed or delighted with it," Barron laughs.
"For a one-off game, the game is a great story to tell, and it's the fairy-tale of the underdog where anyone could beat anyone.
"I don't even think our mothers would have given us a hope of beating Villarreal that day, and we did. I look back on it with great fondness."
Lineups: UCD 4 - 3 Villarreal
UCD: Ger Barron; Sean Harding (Kavanagh, 49), Ciaran Nangle, David O'Connor, Michael Leahy (Captain) (Tomas Boyle 45), Paul Corry (Daniel Ledwith, 59), Samir Belhout (Dean Marshall 45) (Cillian Morrison 83), Robbie Creevy (Sean Russell 59), Graham Rusk (Stephen Roche, 74), Paul O’Conor, Darren Meenan (Stephen Doyle, 74).
Villarreal (first-half): Diego Lopez, Marchena, Capedvilla, Mario, Joselu, Gerard Bardas, Ruben, Cani, Kiko, Valero, Bruno.
Villarreal (second-half): Cesar, Marino, Iriome, Pepe, Castellani, Marcos Gullon, Senna, Cazorla, Nilmar, Mussachio, Joan Oriol.
- Extratime Team
- Sun, Aug 14 2022
- Extratime Team
- Fri, Aug 12 2022
- Macdara Ferris
- Thu, Aug 11 2022
- Macdara Ferris
- Thu, Aug 11 2022
- Macdara Ferris
- Tue, Aug 09 2022
- Macdara Ferris
- Tue, Aug 09 2022