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Dublin: 18 °C Sunday 31 May, 2020

'I don't think I was physically and mentally ready to go over to England'

UCD’s Neil Farrugia on injury setbacks, representing Ireland, his team’s fantastic form and hopes for the future.

UCD player Neil Farrugia pictured competing for Ireland U19s.
UCD player Neil Farrugia pictured competing for Ireland U19s.
Image: Ken Sutton/INPHO


Not everybody can be a 16-year-old prodigy like Wayne Rooney.

Unlike many youngsters, Neil Farrugia appreciates that achieving significant success in the game can take time. He has had to be particularly patient of late.

The 19-year-old has played just three games this season, having only recently returned from injury after suffering a broken collarbone in January.

Farrugia required surgery and the recovery took longer than usual. He was allowed return to training but had to avoid taking part in any contact exercises for a period as he waited to be fully healed.

To make matters worse, the young midfielder had suffered a similarly bad injury the previous February. He was the victim of a mistimed tackle and fell awkwardly on his shoulder as a result.

“I fell on my elbow [for the second injury] and it was the exact same fracture,” he tells The42. “The doctor said he hadn’t seen a case like mine in a while. He said it was really weird the way I broke it the second time and it was a really clean break. He said if you break your collarbone once, the chances of you breaking it again are higher.”

Having made a handful of first-team appearances last season, Farrugia has missed much of UCD’s campaign this year on account of his injury problems. The Students have done pretty well despite the starlet’s absence though, and the club are currently closing in on the First Division title, as they find themselves five points clear at the top of the league with six games remaining.

Farrugia made his return amid a 1-1 draw with Shelbourne earlier this month, subsequently featuring in wins over Wexford and Galway, while getting his name on the scoresheet against the former.

The first game against Shels, my legs were a bit heavy towards the end,” he says. “Also, my awareness on the pitch, having not played for so long, knowing where I am on the pitch and trying to figure out where to go next, it takes a while for that awareness to come back.”

UCD are in a unique position in the First Division in that their team comprises solely of players on a scholarship at the college — a model they only fully embraced recently.

“The whole dynamic of the dressing room has completely changed,” manager Collie O’Neill told The42 in an interview last April. “With that kind of [situation], we thought why not have everyone in and around the same culture and the same basis so that it would build a better team dynamic.

“We were 90% all-scholarship last year and we saw the benefits of it, and this year we’re fully scholarship.”

Collie O'Neill Manager Collie O'Neill has helped UCD climb to the top of the First Division this season. Source: TASR/INPHO

In addition to this willingness to trust in youth, what also makes UCD’s success heartening is their attractive style of football, in which creativity and keeping the ball on the ground is routinely encouraged.

“It definitely suits my playing style,” Farrugia says. “It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to play with UCD, because I want to play with the ball on the ground, I want to be able to pass the ball, move and keep the ball — it’s just more enjoyable. On the field, we do it quite well. The goal with me and Yoyo Mahdy [against Galway] was a prime example of that. Just a one-two, we’d done it in training before, it just kind of happened, I didn’t have to say anything to him — that’s what happens.”

While Farrugia is eager to acknowledge that promotion is by no means a foregone conclusion, he acknowledges that UCD might not be able to dominate in quite the same way should they gain promotion to the Premier Division, but suggests they will stay true to their principles.

“I don’t think we’d change our playing style. We’d definitely have to adapt and maybe tactically change a few things and just train harder as well.

“We wouldn’t know how else to play — we’ve been playing like this for so long. If we changed, it’d probably have more of a negative impact than if we kept the ball and kept up the movement.

Collie’s very good. He gives players chances obviously and even playing football, if someone makes a mistake, he won’t be giving out. He encourages us to play. He knows mistakes happen, so at least we’re not scared to get on the ball or make things happen and keep the ball moving.”

Born in Paris to an Irish mother and French father, Farrugia moved to Dublin when he was “about seven or eight”. He played for a talented Belvedere side in his schoolboy days. A number of his team-mates have also gone on to play at a higher level, including Dan McKenna (Wolves, on loan at Bray), James Finnerty (Rochdale) as well as twin brothers Paul and John Martin (Waterford).

He attended St Andrew’s College in Dublin — a largely rugby and hockey-playing school, with Farrugia often competing in the latter. Football was always his main passion, though, and it was ultimately a straightforward choice to pursue it. And so far, that decision has paid off. Last March, Farrugia — who generally plays on the wing but can also operate as a number 10 — was named FAI Schools International Player of the Year.

Like his team-mates, he combines football with education, studying Biomedical Science in UCD and living with his parents, five minutes away from the college.

“It is enjoyable,” he adds. “I’m always busy and always doing something. I’m never sitting around. I don’t mind it at all, to be honest, I quite enjoy it if anything.”

Before breaking into the senior team, Farrugia impressed as part of a UCD U19 side that competed in the Uefa Youth League and only lost to a talented Molde outfit on penalties.

John Martin Waterford's John Martin was team-mates with Farrugia at Belvedere. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Under another coach who champions creativity and positive football, Maciej Tarnogrodzki, Farrugia thrived.

“That year at U19s I improved a lot in terms of my tactical awareness. Just in terms of pure football, [Maciej] taught me a lot in training and in matches. He’s a great coach to be fair to him and very tactical minded. His awareness as well with positioning and stuff on the pitch and movement and all that kind of stuff, he’s very good with that.”

And has there been any particular piece of advice that has served Farrugia well?

“If you pop into the space and you’re not getting the ball, you need to get out of it and be constantly moving, so that you’re not being marked and leaving space for others to come in. That’s something I try to keep in mind.”

Such words have clearly had an effect, with Farrugia gaining recognition at international level in recent times. Last year, he scored the winning goal, as Ireland U19s beat Serbia 2-1 at the Waterford RSC to qualify for the UEFA European Championship Elite Round.

Unsurprisingly, the youngster’s performances have at times attracted attention from abroad. Last year, he had a big decision to make and while many people in such a scenario would have leapt at any chance to join an English club, Farrugia decided to stay in Ireland and focus on his education for now.

I don’t think I was physically and mentally ready to go over to England. I think physically, I needed some more first-team experience. Mentally, I don’t think I was ready. I had my mind set to get my undergraduate done in UCD. At least, if I had my undergraduate done, I’d be in way better shape to go over.

“If football ends because of an injury, or even after I stopped playing, at least I could go straight into a Masters and not have to do an undergraduate. And having been injured badly twice, you realise how easily a career can just end.

“It’s definitely tough to turn it down because it’s always been a bit of a dream of mine to go over and play and basically be a professional footballer. My reasoning is if in two years’ time when my undergraduate is done and I’m not ready, I probably wouldn’t have succeeded if I went over now.

“Playing first-team football against men [in the League of Ireland] is way better for my development than playing U23s in England. I don’t think that’s competitive enough and I just think first-team football is way more physical and better for your play in general. If you’re over in England, you probably end up getting loaned out to a team to get that first-team experience. So I might as well stay in Ireland and get my first-team experience and my undergraduate here.”

Source: UCD AFC/YouTube

There is often plenty of cynicism about Irish football, particularly when the national team are playing. Under Martin O’Neill as well as most of the coaches before him, the Boys in Green have often struggled to string passes together, even against unremarkable opposition such as Georgia. Farrugia, though, is optimistic that more of an emphasis is now being placed on technical ability at underage level.

“I do think sometimes in Ireland at underage level, managers are more pushing for the win rather than pushing for the players’ development. Sometimes that can happen more or less, but I was lucky enough with the teams I was playing for from Joeys all the way through to Belvo and UCD.

Winning is important, but what’s really important is getting the ball down on the ground and getting players to play. I do think that’s coming more now in Ireland, maybe it’s a bit slower than other countries, but it is coming.”

Farrugia’s advice for other young players, meanwhile, highlights the philosophy he has abided by thus far.

“I wouldn’t say to rush things. Players develop at different speed. I’d definitely suggest to keep at it.

“It’s probably the advice most people give, but I do believe in that, because I was quite a late developer.

“I definitely do advise to continue with the education. I think that’s a very reasonable route. If football doesn’t end up going well, at least education is there.

“There will always be setbacks if it’s injuries or bad moments — it’s just how you bounce back I guess. The more setbacks you have, the stronger you’ll be in the future.”

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Paul Fennessy

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