In the 1970s, the club embarked on a series of landmark tours, becoming the first Irish team to play in places like Jordan, China and Australia. A second invitation to join the League of Ireland was accepted on July 22, 1979, when Cork Celtic were expelled for not having their financial affairs in order. Theo Dunne was appointed first team coach, and apart from a brief spell at Home Farm 1990-94, he was in charge of first team affairs until he retired as coach in 2001. Dr. Tony O'Neill who was general manager when the club joined the League remained in that role until his untimely death from cancer in October 1999.
The club struggled initially in the league after their election, never finishing higher than twelfth in the 16-team league, although they did win the Leinster Senior Cup in December 1980, beating St Patrick's Athletic FC 2-1 in the final. However, important changes within the club in 1983 marked a dramatic upturn in fortunes. The previously amateur club turned semi-pro, and players outside of the college were allowed to represent the first team. This is still the situation today, although in practice most of the players are either students or ex-students. By the end of the 1983/84 season, UCD had won the FAI Cup, beating the great Shamrock Rovers 2-1 after a replay. Shamrock Rovers weren't to lose another game in the competition for over three years – until they lost to UCD in 1988!
That win saw UCD qualify for European competition – the old Cup Winners' Cup – for the first time. The draw pitted them against Everton, then one of the leading sides in England and boasting players of the calibre of Neville Southall, Kevin Sheedy, Graham Sharp, Peter Reid and Andy Gray. The home leg was played in Tolka Park, then leased by Home Farm F.C., and a crowd of 9,000 – many times UCD’s average league crowd – saw the Students come away with a scarcely believable 0-0 draw. Another remarkable performance was to follow two weeks later as a solitary Graham Sharp goal gave Everton a 1-0 win. Joe Hanrahan skimmed the bar for the Students late on; had he scored, UCD would have progressed on away goals – as it was, Everton went on to win the entire competition, and smashed several records in winning their nation's league title. UCD's performance was made all the more remarkable in the fact that at the end of the year Everton were voted the best club side in the World of 1985 by the managers of world's national teams.
That season saw UCD finish fourth in the league, but they were then forced to release many of their best players due to financial difficulties. Joe Hanrahan signed for Manchester United for IR£30,000, Ken O'Doherty moved to Crystal Palace and Alan O'Neill left for Dundalk. The team were relegated in 1985/86 with eight points, a record low in the Premier Division. Despite this, in 1987, UCD won the World Collegiate Championships in New Mexico.
Promotion in 1988/89 was followed by an immediate relegation, and it was 1994/95 before UCD were to return to the Premier. They did so by recording a then record points tally for the First Division, also breaking the record for most goals scored and fewest goals conceded. In 1999/00, a late burst saw UCD finish fourth in the league and qualify for the InterToto Cup. Their opponents were the Bulgarian side PFC Velbazhd Kyustendil, who boasted a couple of full Bulgarian internationals, including Ilian Stoianov, who would go on to represent his country in the 2004 European Championships. UCD kept up their proud European record with a pulsating 3-3 draw in the first leg in Belfield Park, before drawing 0-0 in Bulgaria to bow out on away goals. History unfortunately repeated itself as the Students once again nearly sneaked victory as they hit the post late on.
In 2001, Paul Doolin, one of the most successful players in the League of Ireland, took over as manager from former player Martin Moran. After enjoying a successful first season, the team only just avoided relegation in 2002/03 and was eleven points adrift when Doolin left to take over at Drogheda United in September 2003. Pete Mahon was immediately installed as the new manager, and UCD nearly staged an incredible Houdini act, losing four games in 16, closing the gap at the bottom to two points and recording the highest points total for a relegated team.
2004 saw more of the same, as UCD, together with Finn Harps, smashed the First Division points record and were promoted with ease. They marked their return to the Premier Division with a highly creditable 1-1 draw away to two-time reigning champions Shelbourne. There was a bright point in College's indifferent season when they got into the League Cup final after a 2-1 victory over Shelbourne in the semi-final at Tolka Park. They went on to lose the final 2-1 to Derry City at Belfield Park. A season that started with UCD as contenders for the drop ended relatively well with UCD well clear of the drop-zone in 9th place.
2006 was one of UCD's most successful season in a few years. Despite been knocked out of the League Cup in the first round, "The College" recovered well and finished the season in 6th place and reached the quarter-finals of the FAI Cup. The performances of many in the squad did not go unnoticed, with Darren Quigley and Gary Dicker establishing themselves in the Irish U-21 team. Quigley then went one better and became on Irish B international, when he appeared as a substitute against Scotland B in November. UCD players also attracted interest from many British clubs. Quigley has had trials at many clubs across the water, Stockport County paid €56,000 for Dicker in May 2007 and Patrick Kavanagh signed for Birmingham City after impressing on trial there.
Many famous players have played for UCD down the years. Former Irish international Kevin Moran, who would later play for Manchester United, Sporting de Gijón and Blackburn Rovers played in the League of Ireland B and was signed for Manchester United from UCD’s graduate team, Pegasus. Moran also won an All-Ireland Gaelic football winner’s medal with Dublin in 1976 while at UCD, as would Jason Sherlock nineteen years later. The Leeds United legend and record goalscorer Peter Lorimer played three games before returning to England for a final spell with Leeds. Gavin Whelan (nephew of Ronnie Whelan) and Pat Jennings (son of Northern Irish international Pat Jennings) played for UCD in the most recent relegation season. Brian Lenihan played in the 1955 FAI Cup tie against Sligo Rovers and later ran for President of Ireland. Willie Browne won numerous international university caps while at UCD, he subsequently went on to win 3 Full International Irish caps ,16 Amateur Irish caps, 1 Ireland "B" cap and 6 Inter-League caps and captained Bohemian F.C. for 3 consecutive seasons.Hugo McNeill scored 46 goals in 1978/79, but went on to greater things with the Irish rugby team, winning the Triple Crown in 1985 and playing in the 1987 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Former Sky Sports and current Setanta Sports pundit Paul Dempsey played for one season before taking up a job with the BBC. Dave Norman played senior international football for Canada while at UCD and went on to play in the 1986 World Cup, and many players have received youth caps. Contrary to popular belief, however, there is no evidence that Brazilian star Sócrates ever played for the club.
(Players in bold still playing for UCD)
|1||Ciarán Kavanagh||1990 - 2002||321|
|2||Tony McDonnell||1993 - 2007||308|
|3||Alan Mahon||1997 - present||244|
|4||Alan McNally||1999 - present||220|
|5||Robbie Griffin||1990 - 1998,|
|6||Mick O'Donnell||1995 - 2005||206|
|7||Robert McAuley||1997 - 2005||197|
|8||Michael O'Byrne||1993 - 2001||195|
(Players in bold still playing for UCD)
|1||Michael O'Byrne||1993 - 2002||57|
|3||Robbie Griffin||1990 - 1998,|
|4||Robbie Martin||2000 - 2005||34|
|5||Jason Sherlock||1994 - 1998||31|
|6||Tony McDonnell||1993 - present||28|
|8=||Ciarán Kavanagh||1990 - 2002||25|
|8=||Martin Moran||1979 - 1985,|