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Dublin: 14 °C Friday 19 July, 2019
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The Irish-Egyptian student aiming to become a Premier Division star

21-year-old UCD attacker Yousef Mahdy on balancing a commerce degree with competing in Ireland’s top flight.

Yousef Mahdy has been capped by Ireland at underage level.
Yousef Mahdy has been capped by Ireland at underage level.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

IT’S BEEN A baptism of fire for UCD’s youngsters in the Premier Division this season.

After seven games played, the Students sit second from bottom on seven points.

Collie O’Neill’s side have so far lost five matches — one more than they suffered in the entirety of last season, when they lit up the First Division with their attractive brand of football helping them gain promotion as champions.

So, on their first season back in the top flight following a five-year absence, UCD have found it tough to adapt to this higher standard of football.

In some regards, expecting them to compete against powerhouses of Irish football such as Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers is a big ask.

They play home games in the Belfield Bowl, which is a modest 1,500-seater ground with an overall capacity of 3,000, though in recent seasons, attendances have rarely exceeded 1,000.

Moreover, UCD are unique in the sense that the entire first-team squad comprises of students, and everyone bar midfielder Kevin Coffey studies in the Belfield-based college.

Manager Collie O’Neill, who is a little over four years in the job, initially relied on external non-student players in his squad, but gradually shifted to their current scholarship-only model.

“[Non-scholarship players] never really felt part of the group, there was disharmony in the dressing room whereas now we have complete harmony in the dressing room, so this is a system we will always work off as it has worked,” O’Neill told the league’s official website last year

On that topic, a spokesperson for the club told The42 that it is their current policy to field an all-student team although “there isn’t anything to stop us keeping a graduate if we wished to”.

One player the club will likely be keen to hold onto for the foreseeable future is Yousef ‘Yoyo’ Mahdy, who scored eight goals in the league last year to help the club earn promotion.

The 21-year-old attacker, who was born in Saudi Arabia to Egyptian parents and moved to live in Blanchardstown, Dublin at the age of two, has appeared in all seven of their matches so far this season, scoring once.

While admitting disappointment with how the season has begun, Mahdy feels the team are better than their current position suggests and says some positives can be taken from their start. A 1-0 loss against Sligo Rovers in the Showgrounds, however, highlighted their problems.

The game against Sligo was one of our best performances. We had about 20 shots and most of them were off target, which shows we need to be way more clinical up front and we got punished for one mistake we made all game.

“It took about two or three games to get used to [Premier Division football]. We got a massive wake-up call in the first game [a 3-0 loss] against Derry. We realised we needed to adapt way quicker and we won’t have as much time on the ball as we did in the First Division.”

Michael Drennan celebrates scoring a goal UCD have got off to a disappointing start, picking up four points from seven games. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

So despite this less-than-promising beginning, Mahdy is confident that the club can climb to much greater heights as the season progresses.

“I don’t think we’re just trying to survive, we’re trying to be comfortable in the league. I don’t think mid-table is an unrealistic goal. Maybe it’s a bit optimistic, but even fifth wouldn’t be a bad target. The season’s only began. Everyone’s beating everyone, a lot of teams are getting shock results.”

Inspired to play by his football-mad older brother, life in the Irish top flight is the latest step in a journey for Mahdy that started with Hartstown Huntstown in the North Dublin Schoolboys League, playing a year above his age grade alongside Dean Casey, who now lines out for Athlone Town, among others.

My parents weren’t that big into sport, but they are now,” he adds. “We kind of forced it upon them because of how much football we played and watched.” 

At 15, his father got a job down in Limerick and the family moved there, with Mahdy initially playing schoolboy football in the county before moving to Galway-based Mervue United.

The promising teenager then spent two years under the guidance of Tommy Barrett in Limerick FC’s underage set-up, where soon-to-be Leeds United player Paudie O’Connor was among his team-mates, with Mahdy getting the chance to train alongside the first-team on occasion, before signing for UCD U19s in 2016.

After a year with a talented underage side that made waves in Europe (though Mahdy was ineligible for those fixtures having been at the club for less than two years), the forward gradually began to establish himself in the first team.

And like every young Irish footballer, he dreams of playing abroad in one of the top European leagues at some point, though equally, he has no regrets about the path chosen.

I’m probably at the same level that a lot of players who came back [from England] are at,” he says. “So I don’t look at it as any missed opportunity. I’m very happy with the way I progressed in terms of football and the decisions I made.”

Earning a regular place in the UCD starting XI in itself was no mean feat. But when the club’s star striker Georgie Kelly left to join Dundalk last July, it paved the way for Mahdy to get more first-team opportunities and the youngster made the most of this chance.

“[The first] pre-season was really tough for me. I didn’t think I was at the same pace as everyone else training-wise,” he says. “The fitness stuff was fine, I think it was just the football.

“When Georgie left in the summer, I felt like I was ready to make the step to start to play. I feel like I did well when I came in — I scored a few goals and contributed to the team a lot.”

Georgie Kelly The departure of Georgie Kelly to Dundalk meant Mahdy was given more opportunities to impress. Source: Ciaran Culligan/INPHO

Off the pitch, Mahdy is undertaking a commerce degree, having originally started an engineering course before opting to switch.

Some of the squad also have part-time jobs, and while critics may perceive these commitments as well as the team’s relative inexperience as a disadvantage, Mahdy points out the bond it creates and the positive aspects that come from a squad of footballers who are essentially all in the same boat.

“We train later in the day, because lads have college during the day and people study, so it doesn’t really clash. But when it comes to exam season, that’s when it gets a bit stressful.

“A lot of us live on campus as well, some of us live together. I live with Paul Doyle, a central midfielder. We go to training and eat together and stuff like that.

“There are days where we’d have a bad day on the pitch and [Paul and I] would come to one of the houses on campus and just talk about the game.

“You can be in a lonely place after a game if you play badly, but it’s good [to have someone to] encourage and push you.”

In addition, when he’s not playing football or embroiled in exam hell, Mahdy still finds time to return to Egypt.

I’ve been brought up by Egyptian parents and I would consider myself Egyptian. But I am Irish as well, because I’ve been living there my whole life.

“I go back nearly every summer. Last summer was the first where I didn’t go back. All my family live there and my cousins would be around the same age as I am. I’ve friends over in Egypt as well, so I do like to go home and visit.

“I speak Arabic and English with my parents and my brothers, and in Egypt as well.

“It’s a six-hour journey, but we take two flights [with a stop-off in Turkey]. It’s [much longer] if you count stopovers and stuff like that.”

Mahdy has also represented Ireland at underage level, in addition to training with Egypt U18s. As is often the case with dual-nationality players, he is not adamant about representing one team over the other should the opportunity ever arise.

“I’d be happy to play with either country, but at the same time, I’m playing my football for UCD at the moment and it’s a matter of who comes calling if there’s an opportunity.”

The player’s background, meanwhile, has led to him being targeted by an opposition player in at least one instance.

I experienced it at 19s level. I was racially abused in a match. I reported it to the referee. There was a case — I had to go to the Football Association of Ireland headquarters to say my piece.

“I don’t think there’s a place for it in football or in life in general. I’m strongly against it and if I ever have to be vocal about it, I would be.

“I think there was a four-match ban [for the perpetrator] or something. I’m not too sure how it panned out. I would have expected more of a sanction, but it is what it is at the moment.”

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Paul Fennessy

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