A PRE-MATCH deluge plunged Derry City’s opening fixture into serious doubt until 10 minutes before kick-off but Kenny Shiels mayhave wished the officials had pulled the plug on it as Waterford put a dampener on the Candy Stripes’ start to the new campaign.
City’s new Swedish defender, Armin Aganovich’s diving header gave the visitors a 19th minute lead before Gavan Holohan weaved his way past three defenders and slotted under the body of Gerard Doherty to level it two minutes before the break.
Derry could have no complaints when Waterford’s Dean O’Halloran stole in at the back post to plunder the winner on 78 minutes though Shiels felt there were ‘extenuating circumstances’ conspiring against his team.
Memories of the opening night of the 2016 season when City lost to newly promoted Finn Harps on a horrendous pitch in Ballybofey came flooding back after a miserable night at the rain-drenched RSC Grounds.
This time it was First Division champions, Waterford who made a huge splash on their first return to the top flight since 2007 in front of a sizeable crowd and they thoroughly deserved their memorable victory.
But there were striking similarities with the Harps match back in Shiels’ first match in charge and the post-match reaction on both occasions was remarkably similar.
On that night in 2016 Shiels admitted Harps had ‘mastered the conditions’ better than his side. And on Friday night on Waterford’s waterlogged surface, Shiels conceded the Blues had ‘adapted to the conditions’ better than Derry.
The Derry City boss did actually make reference to that Harps match as his troops once again fell to a newly promoted side on a shockingly poor pitch on the opening night of the season - two games which could so easily have been called off!
And Shiels insists he wouldn’t be surprised if opposition teams now felt his side were a ‘soft touch’ after Friday night’s display as Derry struggled to keep possession and eventually ran out of legs.
“I felt when the pitch was better in the first part of the game we were the dominant team and it was more suitable to our style of play,” he said. “Every team has their style of play but certainly the weather suited them. It’s deja vu from two years ago in our first match against Finn Harps where we played on that type of pitch and got beat 2-1.
“Everybody will be thinking we’re a soft touch and you can’t blame them for thinking that.”
He might be wet behind the ears in terms of management but ex-Derry City assistant boss, Alan Reynolds has assembled an exciting blend of players from across Europe and on Friday night’s evidence they could be a real force at their home base on the banks of the Suir.
Reynolds also made a big statement in the transfer market in a bid to turn his First Division champions into a side comfortable in their top flight surroundings and talk of a top six finish might not be that far from the mark.
Former Ajax midfielder Stanley Aborah who once played alongside Rafael van der Vaart during the 2004/05 campaign, showed a bit of Dutch class with a sublime flick which led to Waterford’s winner.
And stylish former Paris St Germain youth, Bastien Hery who made the switch from Munster rivals, Limerick looked hugely impressive although he has also mastered the dark arts pretty well and was clever when breaking down City moves alongside Paul Keegan.
There were some fascinating duels going on with Nicky Low and Hery in the middle of the park and Darren Cole and Izzy Akinade getting up close and personal, but in the second half Waterford dominated the key areas of the pitch.
Derry looked leggy. Perhaps the evidence of a lack of match practise due a heavily disrupted pre-season. Possibly the effects of the long trip combined with a team consisting of four debutantes in Hale brothers, Rory and Ronan, Aganovic and winger, Jamie McDonagh. But most likely City were casualties of the awful conditions and a heavy pitch. Having said that, it was the same for both teams and Waterford simply coped better!
There was so much promise during the first half. The return of Scottish midfielder, Low isn’t to be underestimated. He covered every blade of grass, kept the ball rolling and got stuck in when needed. New signing, Aganovich netted on his debut and looked a real aerial threat and could forge a decent partnership with Cole as the season goes on.
Every rain cloud has a silver lining and Shiels, who took plenty of positives from the performance, is confident his side will improve for the trip to Sligo on Friday night where both teams will be looking to get off the mark.
“I was happy with how we played. It’s the first game and I’m really sure we will get better because we’re still in pre-season if you look at it. We’re off the pace,” he agreed. “They’re off the pace as well but they haven’t had the last three week’s weather we’ve had. That’s not an excuse it’s an established reason. I’m very disappointed we lost the match but there’s a good foundation there to build on. Let’s bring it on for the next one.”
The Munster men had started impressively with Hery getting the Blues ticking from the middle of the park.
It was his clever ball in behind the Derry defence which set Akinade free on four minutes and the big striker was checked by Darren Cole to earn the home side a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area. Gary Comerford’s curling free needed to be punched clear by the alert Doherty.
For all of Waterford’s early dominance on the ball, the Blues found themselves behind on 19 minutes.
McEneff whipped in a free-kick from the left and Aganovic found himself in acres of space as he peeled off his man and stooped to head the ball into the corner for a debut goal for the Candy Stripes.
The driving rain was making conditions difficult and City skipper, Doherty had to make himself big as he made a superb double block from Akinade and then Dean O’Halloran as a ball over the top from Hery got stuck on the edge of the penalty area.
The Blues were back in the game two minutes before the interval thanks to a terrific jinking run by Holohan, who weaved his way past four defenders before striking low under Doherty and into the net.
There were big shouts from the home support for a penalty on 51 minutes when Akinade went to ground under the challenge from Aganovic but the referee correctly waved play on. Waterford hit the front for the first time in the game with 11 minutes remaining following a fine move.
Aborah found Comerford with a lovely flick and the Blues defender sent a dangerous ball across the face of goal and O’Halloran was on hand to tap it home at the back post. Doherty parried O’Halloran’s powerful strike behind for a corner as Waterford looked for a third late on.
The final whistle went and the 2,502 attendance celebrated a winning return to Premier Division football but Derry have plenty of work to do to get their season up and running.