As so often the case this season, Colm Whelan proved the match winner for UCD as a stunning free-kick goal and a sublime assist earned a promotion/relegation play-off against Waterford as they deservedly beat Bray Wanderers at Dalymount Park in this First Division play-off final.
Andy Myler's Students will meet Waterford, who finished ninth in the Premier Division, next Friday to decide which division the respective sides will play in next season.
Roared on by the majority of the support in the stand, Bray were fortunate not to see an early yellow card for skipper Aaron Barry’s crunching challenge on Dara Keane eight minutes in. The Seagulls were equally happy to see College captain Jack Keaney’s resulting free-kick sail over their crossbar.
Bray settled and started to pass the ball well but they had a let off on 20 minutes when Harvey O’Brien failed to get a decent connection to Paul Doyle’s quick free-kick as he headed wide.
That saw UCD regain the initiative and another Doyle free-kick squeezed through the wall but it didn't have the venom to trouble Brian Maher while Whelan stretched to head wide from another Doyle delivery.
The frame of the goal then rescued Bray on 37 minutes. Right-back Michael Gallagher’s excellent ball down the right sent Keane to the end line. The pullback found Whelan who took a touch before rifling a drive off Maher’s left-hand post.
With a bit more purpose to their game from the resumption, Bray stretched UCD with Brandon Kavanagh having a deflected shot comfortably held by Lorcan Healy.
A delightful dinked cross from Kavanagh then found Joe Doyle whose flick header was straight at the UCD ’keeper.
An uncharacteristic route one approach brought a UCD response on 58 minutes. Barry allowed Sam Todd’s ball over the top to bounce through for the run of Whelan with Maher forced into a fine save with his legs from the angled shot.
With the game opened up, Richie O’Farrell’s clever feet back at the other end set up Doyle who curled his shot over the bar.
But Wanderers had Maher to thank again on 63 minutes, the Ireland U21 international saving smartly on his line from Kerrigan’s close-range flick after Whelan worked the opening.
Maher was left rooted to the spot five minutes later, though, UCD taking the lead as Andrew Quinn’s foul on Whelan proved costly. Whelan took the direct strike himself, thumping the ball past the wall to enter the net at the near post for his 26th goal in all competition this season.
The sought-after Whelan then turned provider with a delightful chipped pass for Doyle to cut past a defender and drill a shot to the net on 87 minutes.
Thomastown native Whelan might have added a third in stoppage time but for Maher producing the save of the night to tip his drive over the bar.
Bray Wanderers: Brian Maher Mark Byrne, Andrew Quinn, Aaron Barry, Dylan Barnett, Ryan Graydon, Luca Lovic (Steven Kinsella 80), Richie O'Farrell, Darren Craven (Sam Verdon 75), Brandon Kavanagh; Joe Doyle.
UCD: Lorcan Healy, Michael Gallagher, Harvey O’Brien, Sam Todd, Evan Osam, Jack Keaney; Liam Kerrigan, Dara Keane (Mark Dignam 90), Sean Brennan, Paul Doyle (Adam Verdon 90), Colm Whelan.
Referee: Oliver Moran (Dublin).