With Villareal’s upcoming Champions League semi-final fixture against Liverpool next week, it seems like an apt time to remember their last foray into Irish territory.
July 16th 2011, when El Submarino Amarillo (The Yellow Submarine) came to face UCD at the Belfield Bowl.
The semi-finals happen to be the furthest the Spaniards have gone in the Champions League, matching their 2005-06 campaign, when they were knocked out by another English foe in Arsenal.
UCD’s greatest ventures in Europe consist of reaching the second-round of Europa League qualifying when they were in the second-tier of Irish football in 2015. And when they came close to knocking out eventual champions Everton in the first round of the European Cup Winners Cup back in 1984.
Needless to say, when they organised to play each other in a pre-season friendly 11 years ago, it was not because of a similar European pedigree, or indeed any similarities at all besides both clubs having professional football teams.
UCD were the chum offered every year across the world, to big European sides before the league campaign begins. Easy wins which offer teams the chance to gel after the break, for players to regain fitness, and to test out new signings or youth players.
The game should have been as obvious a foregone conclusion as there ever has been. UCD, who were in the midst of their League of Ireland campaign, would finish eighth that season, while Villareal finished 4th in the 2010/11 La Liga and would go onto qualify for the Champions League.
Furthermore, the Spaniards had four members of Spain’s Euro 2008 winning team in their squad that day, all of whom would play. Carlos Marchena and Joan Capdevila started in the first-half XI. Both players also started the Euro 2008 final, at centre-back and full-back respectively.
Santi Cazorla and Marcos Senna started in the second-half XI. Senna also started Spain’s 2008 final as a defensive midfielder, while Santi Cazorla came off the bench, unable to start in a midfield of Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, and David Silva.
The UCD side that day featured the likes of Ger Barron, Paul Corry, Darren Meenan, Graham Rusk, Paul O’Conor, and Robbie Creevy.
Looking from the outside in, you would imagine the aim of the home side would have been to grab a goal while keeping the score line respectable. Obviously the Martin Russell-managed side had a completely different view, and an inner-confidence that only they knew.
For the UCD fans, they may have been hoping that they would finally get to go to a home game where they outnumbered the travelling support, after all, how many Villareal natives would be making the trip from the east of Spain to watch a pre-season friendly against a side largely compromised of college students?
Probably not many, but a large number of the ever-present Spanish students who flock to Dublin every summer made their way to the Bowl, and made it somewhat of a home away from away for Villareal. UCD home fans would once again be in the minority.
The Spanish support would not be enough however, as the students managed a legendary 4-3 victory, which will continue to remembered for its frankly ridiculous improbability and excitement.
Not only did the Students manage a win so against the odds that a David vs Goliath cliché would not do it justice, but they did it in an up-and-down fashion that was truly fitting of the occasion.
Despite Villareal taking the lead after 13 minutes through Borja Valero, UCD fought back and took a 2-1 half-time lead after goals from Boyle and Leahy.
Speaking with Extratime's Andrew Dempsey, UCD's keeper Ger Barron remembered what his side's thoughts were going into half-time:
"We went in ahead at the break – and we were thinking 'Jesus, we're in this game'. People were rattling off names that we were playing against.
"But by the time we came out for the second half, we were playing a completely different eleven – and it was arguably a better side.
"Santi Cazorla, Marcos Senna and Cesar all came on – it was unreal. They also saw what happened in the first half and probably were saying to themselves, 'we'll teach these boys a lesson', but we held our own and great a good few chances."
After the break Villareal made it 2-2 through Marco Ruben, but UCD once again battled back to regain the lead with O’Conor’s strike.
The ex-Arsenal magician Santi Cazorla made it 3-3, setting up a barely believable finish that was be won by the home team in the 85th minute. Joan Oriol would score an own goal to prompt manic celebrations from the sidelines, and write his side, for the wrong reasons, into Irish cult and footballing history.
No doubt if any of the UCD squad or management who were involved that day are watching next week’s Champions League semi-final, they will instantly be reminded of that special summer’s day one July, where they took on some of Europe’s best and won.