Derry City better equipped than ever to challenge dominance of Shamrock Rovers says Ruaidhri Higgins
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Rovers have been the dominant force in the league in recent years and are seeking an historic four-in-a-row championship title this term.
However, Higgins has assembled a talented and, more importantly, experienced group of players who have developed a winning mentality of their own.
Skipper Patrick McEleney, Michael Duffy and Cameron Dummigan have won league titles with Dundalk while Mark Connolly (Dundee United 2020), Danny Mullen (St Mirren 2017/18) and Paul McMullan (Dundee United 2020 and Dundee 2021/22) were all part of Scottish Championship winning teams and will be key figures in the Derry dressing room in the coming weeks.
"It (winning trophies) just gives you belief as an individual that you can do it on the big stage," said Higgins. "We now have a lot of players who have won something.
"You look at Paul McMullan, he has won the Scottish Championship a few times. Michael Duffy, Patrick McEleney, Shane (McEleney) has won trophies so we now have a lot of players who know what it takes to win trophies.
"I know the league is a different animal to the cup but I remember 2014 actually at Dundalk, when we won the League Cup, it was kind of a springboard for the league to go on to achieve so winning trophies is really important for the future of the club."
Derry fell short in their title tussle with Rovers last season but their first FAI Cup triumph in 10 years and an historic European run this summer has been the springboard for another shot at wrestling the league title from the firm grasp of the Dubliners.
Four points separate the teams going into Friday's mouthwatering clash between the top two teams in the league but Higgins believes the points difference is the only edge Rovers have over his team.
"They're four points ahead so that gives them an edge," he answered when asked if Rovers' know-how gave them an advantage at the business end of the season.
"They have a lot of experienced campaigners. A lot of lads who have been around the block a few times and real quality players who know how to get the job done but we've got players in our group who know how to win as well.
"I just think it's about being calm and not getting too excited and preparing the way we always prepare. Once you prepare right you give yourself an opportunity.
"The players are now, I feel, in the best form we've been in since the season started. For the last couple of months we've been playing at a really high level and as long as we maintain that we'll give ourselves a really good chance."
Rovers ran out champions 13 points clear of Derry last year but it was much closer than that margin would suggest before the wheels came off Derry's challenge late on in the run-in as they looked towards the cup final.
That experience and the addition of some quality players in the close season and then again this summer has closed the gap.
So are they better equipped to sustain that challenge?
"I think so. The experience of last year will have been great. We were able to win the cup last year so it gave players who hadn't won a trophy that feeling and now they know how to get things done."
"We're well equipped and we're ready. It's too dangerous to think too far ahead and all we're focussing on, I know it's boring but we've always had that mantra and just deal with the next game. Whatever comes after that, we'll see.
"It certainly won't be easy. They are three-in-a-row champions and they're that for a reason. They know how to get it done. They know how to win but we're in really good form these past few months and it's a game we're relishing and looking forward to."
Derry have experienced some momentous results against Rovers under Higgins at Brandywell including Jamie McGonigle's stoppage time winner in the league in February 2022 - Derry's first win over Rovers in almost five years - and the 3-1 FAI Cup quarter-final last year.
Higgins is hoping for another result which would set up one of the most enthralling title run-ins for some time.
"Three points would be amazing, of course it would. We know we will need to be right on top of our game to achieve that. We will need the home support behind us as well.
"When the crowd gets behind us at the Brandywell, the nights are getting darker earlier and the floodlights will be on and I love it when it's like that. It creates a real atmosphere with Shamrock Rovers coming to town, hopefully we can make it a memorable night.
"I'd take the same result (as the FAI Cup quarter-final win) if I was offered it now. This is what we're involved in football for. Big nights, big games, two good sides going at it. That's the way I view it.”