AARON McEneff’s thoughts immediately before and after Friday night’s last-gasp defeat to Bray Wanderers were dominated by his former captain, the late Ryan McBride.
Prior to kick-off Derry City paid beautiful tributes to the Brandywell man with junior supporters’ club ‘City Cubs’ releasing red and whites balloons into the night’s sky while the club’s U19 and U17 representatives formed the number five in honour of the man who wore it on his back with such pride.
McEneff and his teammates wore shirts with ‘McBride’ on their backs in the warm-up and black armbands bearing the number five as the former skipper’s friends and family watched on from the terraces.
And despite Derry producing a gallant comeback in the fighting spirit of McBride in the second half, despite injuries to the club’s two most senior players - Rory Patterson and captain Gerard Doherty - the Candy Stripes were hit with a sucker-punch at the death.
One couldn’t help but wonder had the big number five been present could Tim Clancy’s 93rd-minute towering header from a corner-kick have been averted. As McBride himself put it as recently as the win in Tallaght three weeks ago, those kind of crosses into the box were ‘our meat and drink’.
When the final whistle went the Derry City players slumped to the ground in exhaustion, totally drained after an almighty effort. ‘The hardest game of the season by some distance’ as Aaron Barry put it afterwards.
Derry deserved more. But the reception the players received from the mass of supporters, who stayed on to show their appreciation for City’s dogged determination and some terrific attacking football, said it all.
It was a hard one to take for all involved and McEneff, who netted from the penalty spot to spark that spirited second-half revival, reckoned McBride would have been ‘punching holes’ in the dressing room walls at the manner of defeat.
However, he was certain his former skipper would have been proud of the reaction from the players given the way they’ve pulled together in recent weeks.
“Ryan was my team-mate but more importantly he was a good friend to me,” said McEneff. “If he was playing tonight and we came in having lost 3-2 he would have been punching holes in those walls in there,” he said glancing towards the dressing room.
If he was playing tonight and we came in having lost 3-2 he would have been punching holes in those walls in there.Aaron McEneff
“But he would’ve been proud of that display. It’s not nice we didn’t get the win but I think Ryan would be happy with the way we played.
“And the boys deserve credit in the way they’ve acted over the last few weeks and how they’ve all pulled together. And we will continue to pull together for the rest of the season.
“All the boys are really close. We’re all mates and come into training and work hard every day and go out and play for each other. I don’t know if people can see it from the sidelines but you really feel part of a close-knit group and that’s a really good thing to have.”
You could certainly see this side are united and blessed with some real talent. Lukas Schubert was the oldest player on the pitch at 27 when the injured Doherty (thigh) failed to emerge after the interval. But McEneff doesn’t believe age comes into it given the talent and experience in the squad.
“People keep saying about us having young players. We are young, fair enough but it’s a game of football and the young players in this changing room as well as the older players are really good football players.
“I know you need experience in the team and there are boys in there that bring us that but the young players are really good footballers. Obviously you don’t want to see your two key players come off but at the same time we have people who can come in and do a job. Whoever watched that game in the second half will have seen we played some great stuff and the boys who came on did well. We should have won the match.
“There is a lot of positives to take from it. We’ll analyse it during the week and go down to Cork with a positive mindset.”