A COMPREHENSIVE 4-0 win over the Irish Universities in the annual Hooper Trophy brought the season to a close for Jim Conroy’s Colleges FAI side.
The match also brought the curtain down on Conroy’s four-year spell with the national side but the local coach said he would be delighted to see that spell extended for a further two years.
Conroy, who is approaching his 20th year as senior tutor and coach for the Soccer Scholarship Programme in Colaiste Ide, Dublin, was part of a four man set-up, working alongside fellow Dundalk man, Niall Teather (physio), Danny Crowley (manager) and Paddy Gleeson (coach).
Under their stewardship, the side lost just two competitive games in a four year spell and speaking to the Dundalk Democrat, Conroy spoke with pride of his time involved with the national set-up.
“We came in four years ago with a view to taking a professional view of things. We’ve lost two competitive games in four years which is a great achievement considering we only get the players a day before the game. We wanted to re-establish professionalism and we’ve done that.
“The Hooper Trophy is held in high esteem by the universities and colleges”, he added. “They really want to win it. It’s similar to the Collingwood Cup. It is probably the biggest game of the season for the two sides. The Universities side sort of look down on us so it’s always nice to put one over on them. In our four games against the Universities we won two, drew one and lost one so we’re delighted with the way the whole thing went”.
The Hooper Trophy was the culmination of a season that began back in September when trials for over 200 students took place in Dublin and the midlands.
That number was whittled down to a final 25, with the squad’s first game coming against the Irish Defence Forces in Galway back in January, a trip that also saw the Colleges side take on the RAF.
“We beat the Irish Defence Forces 4-1 and played the RAF the following day”, recalls Jim. “I think we underestimated them but they literally kicked the living daylights out of us! Their centre-back was six foot eight and their midfielder was six foot six.
“They beat us 3-0 but in the second-half we went out and gave it everything and could have ended up getting back in the game. From then on, we told the lads that the level of performance that they put in during the second-half was the level we expected from them in every game.”
Next up for the Colleges was a friendly with Dundalk at Oriel Park where they were beaten by a single strike. A controversial offside decision saw what looked like a perfectly good Colleges goal ruled out.
That match helped the side get familiar with their surroundings ahead of a meeting with their Scottish counterparts at the same venue a week late. The game ended 1-1 with the Scots securing a draw thanks to a hotly disputed penalty.
A return game in Edinburgh (0-0) was followed by a trip to Wales where they won 2-0; the Colleges side finishing unbeaten from their three outings, four if the 4-4 draw with England is included.
According to Jim, playing against other national teams was a great incentive for the players in his side and if he was to return for another spell, the objective would be to help create some sort of competitive tournament amongst the home nations to compliment the games against the Universities and Defence Forces.
“That would be the main aim. This was the first year the Welsh came in and hopefully they’ll be over to us next year. The Scots were delighted with their stay in Dundalk. They trained in Muirhevnamor, stayed in the Fairways and were thrilled to play in Oriel Park so we’ll be looking forward to meeting them again.”
The main obstacle, Jim says, is funding.
“Ideally we would love to get the England and Northern Ireland involved but the funding for colleges and university football is just not there.
“Our budget for the whole year was just 8.5k. I remember days when it was around the 40k mark. We’re funded by the CFAI and CUFL. The FAI come in as a major sponsor overall but they throw in very little. Umbro are our main sponsor. They look after us pretty well but if we didn’t have them we’d be in trouble.”
Conroy knows only too well about the hassle involved in trying to secure funding. Last year, the management team were due to lead Ireland in the World Student Games in China only to see the plug pulled due to finances. The decision still rankles with Jim.
“CUSI are the educational side of the whole thing. They are the governing body and they pulled the plug. The total cost was 67k. We were willing to get half of the from the players but CUSI decided not to send the 5k needed to secure our invitation. We found out in March we weren’t going when and the event wasn’t even taking place until September.
“It was very frustrating”, he added. “We worked for three years trying to get a team prepared for the World Student Games in China. We played England in the build up to it and drew 4-4 and the Great Britain team that went to the games went and got to the final.
“After pulling out, we lost the invitation. We’d have to canvas to get back in but once you lose it it’s very difficult so we’ll see what happens in the future.”
For now, Jim’s focus is on Colaiste Ide but he said he would love another crack with the Colleges side.
“The AGM is in September or October and if we’re offered it again we’ll take it.
“You’re aiming to coach at the highest level and to bring players to a new level. Trying to get our lads to progress to League of Ireland clubs is the main goal.
“We have five or six who are involved with clubs at the minute and the likes of Gary Deegan (ex-Bohemians and now Coventry City) and Shaun Williams (former Dundalk and now MK Dons) have come through and gone on to better things.
““The other thing is, if a fella is planning on going to America, if you put it on your CV that you played with Ireland, you’ll be picked up straight away. Obviously your grades have to be up to scratch but it’s a great thing to have behind you.”
After almost 20 years with Colaiste Ide and four with the Colleges FAI side, you could forgive Jim if he lost his appetite for the game slightly. However he insists he gets the same buzz every year when the season begins.
“I love being involved”, he said. “We get 100 new students every year with Colaiste Ide and 25 new players every year with the Colleges FAI team and I like to set goals. It’s a labour of love for me.”