By Damian Dolan
Cup glory beckons for a football team of Irish ex-pats living and working in London on Friday evening, as UCC Diaspora FC attempt to win the London FA Junior Cup – the most prestigious cup competition for amateur teams in London.
UCC Diaspora was founded in 2010 by a group of University College Cork (UCC) Soccer Club alumni, including Jack O’Connell, Paul Irwin, Stephen Tangney and its current chairperson Paul Williamson.
Its formation coincided with the demise of Wandsworth Celtic – a club approaching the end of its life due to player retirements.
On Friday they face HFSB & Ten Em Bee, who play in the Kent County League, in the final at Carshalton FC in Sutton (KO 7:45pm).
It’s the biggest day in the club’s short history – having reached the final once before in 2016, only to lose out narrowly to Tower Hamlets FC – a side who were playing a step higher than UCC Diaspora in the footballing structure. UCC Diaspora are a Junior League team.
“We’re punching above our weight in the competition, so it’s a great achievement to get to the final,” Williamson told the Irish World.
Not long now, only just over a week to the biggest game we’ve played in a long time. London FA Junior Cup Final, 7.45 KO on the 12th of April.
Being played @ Carshalton Athletic FC, Cash only at the ground to pay in, as well as a very cheap bar. Please come down to support UCC!
— UCC Diaspora F.C (@UCCDiaspora) April 3, 2019
“We’ve beaten some longstanding teams that have been around for a lot longer than us. Some are from county leagues, which would be a step above us in the football pyramid.
“They’ve got better facilities and funding, so to beat them is huge.”
The London Junior Cup has thus become something of a “bogey competition” for UCC Diaspora over the years.
The club had rarely got past the first or second round, before going all the way to the final in 2016, only to lose 2-1.
UCC Diaspora conceded two early goals, and although they’d pulled one back by half-time, they couldn’t find an equaliser in the second half. Half the team still remain from that defeat.
But with Tower Hamlets, who have won the competition three times in the last four years, amongst those brushed aside by UCC Diaspora on its march to this year’s final, hopes are high that this could finally be the club’s year.
Williamson says that win was a “massive” confidence boost for the team.
“They’ve been the best team in the competition over the last number of years, so to beat them and get that monkey off our back was huge,” he said.
“It gave us the confidence to think we can go all the way this year.”
Just reaching the London FA Junior Cup final is no mean accomplishment for UCC Diaspora, who play their junior football in the Wimbledon & District Premier Division.
They train at Southfields Academy in Wandsworth and play their home matches at Nursery Road Playing Fields in South Wimbledon, on a pitch rented from Merton Council.
The London FA Junior Cup dates back to 1886 – its first winners were a team called Connaught – and now upwards of 100 teams enter the competition each year from across London, Essex and Kent.
Having received a Bye in Round 1, UCC Diaspora’s journey to the final began on 20 October with a 7-0 hammering of Earlsfield United – another team made up of Irish ex-pats. For Williamson, it was a key result in the team’s cup run.
“We turned up and just played them off the park – we were delighted with our performance that day. And that set us on the way,” he said.
“It showed that we had the calibre to go all the way.”
Four further wins, including that hugely significant victory over Tower Hamlets, have taken them back to the final, and the chance for cup glory.
The prolific Gavin Falconer is the team’s top scorer with 24 goals in all competitions this season. The Waterford native has previously played for Waterford United and UCD in the League of Ireland.
The team’s coach is also its goalkeeper, Luke Barrett. From an Irish family, he’s one of only two English-born players in the side.
Williamson credits Barrett as the tactical mastermind behind the team’s impressive season to date.
“Most teams at this level play a traditional 4-4-2 formation, but we play three at the back. There were a few teething problems at the start, but once we got used to it, it really clicked,” he said.
Talisman Eoin Kilcommens from Cork has been another key component, chipping in with his share of goals. Like Williamson, he also played for UCC.
“Gavin and Eoin are our top scorers, and Luke has been instrumental as coach, but everyone’s contributed a lot this year,” added Williamson.
The players may now come from all corners of Ireland, but the link to UCC and its soccer team still remains. Williamson and Kilcommens are but two.
The Cork university team’s distinctive skull and crossbones logo adorns the UCC Diaspora’s red shirt, while Williamson and other members travel back every year to attend the UCC alumni lunch in February.
Earlier this year, the club also brought a team back to Cork to play in the Liam Corbett Memorial Cup – in memory of one of the club’s managers who passed away in 2016 – during its ‘Colours weekend’.
“Since the start we’ve been a great base for UCC graduates and other Irish lads who have moved to London,” said Williamson.
“When we started off it was mainly Cork lads, but it’s grown to be lads from all over Ireland. Many guys have found jobs and accommodation through club contacts.”
UCC Diaspora are currently in fourth place in the Wimbledon & District Premier Division, which started as far back as 1898. Most notably, one of its founding members is now AFC Wimbledon.
The standard is “high” and the club takes its football “seriously”, but it’s also a very social club.
“It’s a great club to be involved with – I’ve really enjoyed it,” adds Williamson who has been there from the very beginning, and is now in his third year as chairperson.
On Friday, UCC Diaspora FC could finally have its day.