Cahal Mc Auley reports from Dalymount Park
A moment of magic from Colm Whelan set UCD on their way to a 2-0 victory against Bray Wanderers in a cagey First Division play-off final at Dalymount Park on Friday evening.
A perfect free kick from Whelan and late goal from Paul Doyle were enough to keep the Students promotion campaign on track and consign Bray to another season in the second tier.
Despite the travelling Wanderers crowd creating a home atmosphere for their side, it was UCD who made the more composed start, controlling possession in the opening minutes.
Jack Keaney and Liam Kerrigan had efforts which ended up high and wide of the post as both sides looked nervous with so much at stake.
Bray began to take the initiative around the 20-minute mark as the broke down they pitch after a UCD corner. Harvey O’Brien directed a header wide of goal and in a game so lacking in quality to that point, it wasn’t too surprising that Wanderers came close to breaking the deadlock through route one football.
Brian Maher’s kickout sailed over the UCD fullbacks who had stayed on the halfway line during the corner as Brandon Kavanagh stormed through on goal, but Evan Osam did brilliantly well to get back goal side and make a vital block.
There were further nervous moments at the back for the Students shortly after as Darren Craven got a block on a Lorcan Healy clearance, but the UCD goalkeeper breathed a sigh of relief as the ball bounced away from his empty net.
The Students regained control after this Bray pressure as the tempo of the game dropped once again, and they created the only clear chance of the half with seven minutes to the break.
Dara Keane found himself in space out wide on the right, pulling the ball back to Colm Whelan who struck the post as his Ireland under-21 teammate Maher looked on helplessly.
Both sides were content to go in level at the break after an entirely forgettable first half in which the occasion got the better of each set of players.
The game opened up noticeably after the interval with both sides taking an extra level of intensity out of the changing rooms.
There were chances at both ends as Joe Doyle had a flick on header easily gathered by Healy. UCD then broke up the pitch where Maher was forced to deny Whelan with his feet from an acute angle.
Joe Doyle caused the Students problems again shortly after as he curled an effort just over the crossbar, picking up possession from a mazy run by Richie O’Farrell.
The Seagulls had done their utmost to limit the impact of Kerrigan and Whelan, but the pair began to find each other more frequently around the hour mark.
Kerrigan burst forward through midfield, spraying the ball out wide to Whelan who squared it back across goal, but Maher was able to get in the way of Kerrigan’s shot.
In such a tense game it was always likely to be a piece of individual quality that broke the deadlock and Colm Whelan provided this in the 68th minute with a moment of sheer brilliance.
The Students won a free kick around 25 yards from goal which Whelan struck perfectly, getting the ball up over the wall and into the bottom corner, giving Maher no chance and putting his side into a vital lead.
A weight was lifted from UCD after the goal as they began to play with more freedom, putting together moves with clever flicks and one twos which had been markedly absent for the most of the game.
However, the Seagulls faithful thought that they had their equaliser with seven minutes to play as the ball was floated in from the left-hand side, eventually falling to O’Farrell on the edge of the box, but the Bray man couldn’t direct his shot on target and fired agonisingly wide.
O’Farrell was left to rue this guilt edged chance just three minutes later as UCD put the game to bed with Whelan turning provider.
The UCD talisman played a delicate through ball to Paul Doyle, who produced a cool finish past Maher and into the far corner to make sure of the win for Andy Myler’s side.
Whelan almost got his second in the final minute of normal time as the Bray defence played him in with a misplaced a pass, but Maher produced a brilliant reflex stop to swipe the powerful effort over the bar.
Wanderers’ heads dropped after the second goal and the Students were able to see the game out with little trouble and keep their promotion hopes alive after a tense playoff final.
UCD will now face Waterford in next week’s promotion/relegation final, in a repeat of September’s thrilling FAI Cup quarter final. The game will take place next Friday at Richmond Park with a 7.45pm kick-off.
Bray Wanderers: Brian Maher; Andrew Quinn, Mark Byrne, Aaron Barry, Dylan Barnett (c); Richie O'Farrell, Luka Lovic (Steven Kinsella 80), Brandon Kavanagh, Darren Craven (Sam Verdon 75); Ryan Graydon, Joe Doyle.
Subs not used: Jack Ross, Kian Clarke, Sean Callan, Daniel Jones, Sam Hayden, Darragh Lynch, Jamie Bowden.
Booked: Aaron Barry (23), Ryan Graydon (89).
UCD: Lorcan Healy; Sam Todd, Evan Osam, Jack Keaney (c), Michael Gallagher; Harvey O'Brien, Dara Keane (Mark Dignam 89), Paul Doyle (Adam Verdon 89), Sean Brennan; Colm Whelan, Liam Kerrigan.
Subs not used: Carl Williams, Luke Boore, Ciaran Behan, Evan Caffrey, Eoin Farrell, Adam Lennon, Lennon Gill.
Booked: Sam Todd (14), Paul Doyle (57, Liam Kerrigan (89).
Referee: Oliver Moran
Player of the Match: Colm Whelan