AS THE SSE Airtricity Premier Division takes a break for this weekend’s FAI Cup fixtures it’s a good time to take a pit-stop and reflect on the intriguing race for Europe as the league enters its final straight.
Derry City fans must be delighted to find the Brandywell club in a tantalising position after back-to-back league wins saw them overtake Bohemians into third and seize pole position with eight matches remaining.
With Declan Devine in the cockpit, he’ll do his best to manage expectations, however, I reckon the Candy Stripes have now emerged as favourites to cross the finish line ahead of the ‘Gypsies’ and fend off the late challenge from St Pat’s who remain in their slip stream.
There’s been lots of jostling for position over the course of the 2019 season and with Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers out in front, Derry’s neck and neck race with Bohemians has really been nip and tuck so far, although the Dubliners may need a jump-start after recent poor results.
The Candy Stripes have taken advantage of Bohemians’ latest slip-ups and stepped on the gas after the derby loss to Finn Harps. And if they maintain their current form they should pip the Dubliners, who appear to be feeling the heat.
From the eight remaining matches, Derry have five at Brandywell and three away from home so their destiny is in their own hands.
Derry face some tough fixtures in that run-in, particularly away to Dundalk and of course their next league clash at home to Shamrock Rovers which could put the skids on their challenge.
However, they take on Bohemians in what should be a mouth-watering clash at Brandywell on September 20th next.
Bohs also have five home games remaining but have to travel to Rovers, Derry and Sligo. And Keith Long’s side just seem to have picked up a slow puncture at the wrong moment having registered just one win in their last six!
So that meeting at Brandywell in September could really decide who clinches that third Europa League spot.
After 28 matches Derry have accumulated 46 points - that’s FOUR points better off than the club’s tally at the end of the 2018 campaign.
Devine’s troops have scored just three goals less that the total league goals last season - which you would expect them to surpass in the next eight games - but remarkably have conceded 44 goals less!
To be competing for third place and to have a League Cup Final to look forward to after a close season which brought so much upheaval and with 23 new players through the Brandywell gates, the 2019 season has already been a success story.
And they’ve done it in the fast lane and by playing an attractive, exciting brand of football, on most occasions coupled with a contagious work ethic which has brought the crowds back to Brandywell.
Devine expects plenty of twists and turns in the final eight games and recent results have added weight to that prediction.
He won’t want to let the players get carried away at this late stage but he’s delighted to be in their current lofty position as he looks to steer them to success.
“It’s very early days to be talking about European places,” said the City boss. “There are so many good teams and what I’ve found over my course of time in this league is that in the fourth phase of games, there are always going to be surprises.
“There are always going to be teams, when the expectation is on them to win, they will drop points. We will just go on the way we’ve been all year and take each game as it comes. We will make sure we prepare properly for every game and understand we get nothing in this league without hard work.
“The players deserve huge credit but it’s very early days to be looking at the table,” he reiterated.”
Devine is blessed with some excellent attacking options at present which could prove pivotal in the coming weeks with Michael McCrudden back to full fitness and David Parkhouse finding his scoring touch. Parkhouse is remarkably just two goals behind leading scorer, Pat Hoban. Six of the Dundalk striker’s 12 goal haul, it has to be pointed out, have come from the penalty spot, while 19 year-old ‘Parky’ has netted all his from open play!
And the four goal haul against Waterford in the EA Sports Cup on Monday night - his seventh in three games - will do wonders for his confidence going into the final games.
Conor Davis has also ‘come to the party’ as he got off the mark against his old club, UCD on Friday night and Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe has the ability to frighten the life out of defenders once he returns to full fitness. And City’s entire back four have also been equally impressive.
A word of praise too for Gerardo Bruna who has emerged as a key player in the past few weeks, dictating play and providing two excellent assists at the Belfield. He produced another masterclass midfield display on Monday night with his range of passing exceptional. He has come into his own and with lots of options on a strong looking bench, there’s plenty to be optimistic about on Foyleside.
“There are 10 weeks left and it’s going to be a rollercoaster,” added Devine. “You see the results at the weekend with Bohs getting beat at Finn Park. There’s going to be ups and downs. There’s going to be times when the table will move a bit.
“There’s going to be times in games when we’re not playing that well and we will need the support to drive us through, like they’ve done on many occasions this year.
“The players have been brilliant. Now is the time we want to get a bit of reward for the work we’ve put in. We want to get this club back challenging for things.
“We have to play to our extreme high levels and make sure we never drop our standards. If we can do that then it should be a good end to the year.”
After flirting with relegation last season, it’s already been a good year but let’s hope we see an exciting conclusion as Devine looks to steer his hometown into Europe for the first time since taking them to Turkey where they lost out to Trabzonspor in the second qualifying round back in 2013.