Derry City boss Ruaidhri Higgins daring to dream of European football

RUAIDHRI Higgins had previously refused to entertain talk of European football but the Derry City boss admits victory over St Patrick's Athletic was a 'significant' one in the race for third spot.

Saturday, 16th October 2021, 7:43 am
Derry City players celebrate with match winner Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe after victory over St Pat's at Brandywell. Photograph by Kevin Moore.

With six games to go Higgins could no longer dance around the inevitable European question in his post-match interviews as Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe's second half winner closed the gap on third placed Sligo Rovers to a single point.

Derry's fate now lies in their own hands with both rivals for that third automatic qualifying spot, Bohemians and Sligo Rovers yet to come to the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium which has found its voice at the perfect time.

Higgins' mantra since taking over the Brandywell hotseat has been 'one game at a time' but now the final automatic qualifying spot is within his team's grasp at the business end of the season.

Taking the scalp of the Saints, who came to Foyleside intent on keeping alive their title challenge, will give Derry real belief going into the half dozen fixtures which will define the most incredible of seasons.

When the Limavady man took charge of the club the Candy Stripes were in a perilous position at the foot of the table without a win in six. The transformation since has been nothing short of remarkable.

Ironically, it was Sligo Rovers who produced a similar resurrection during last season's truncated 18 match League of Ireland campaign as they rose from bottom place to secure their place in Europe and now Derry are hot on their tails in a bid to trump that turnaround.

Derry are the form team from the three contenders for that third spot having taken 20 points from a possible 27 in their last nine league fixtures. And now Higgins is daring to dream.

Junior ends up in the net after heading Derry City into the lead in the second half against St Pats.

"There's no point in playing the question down now with six games to go," he conceded. "Tonight was significant. I think and it puts us right in the hunt for that place. The players deserve huge credit for getting themselves in this position.

"It's set up for us and we'll give it a real crack and see where it takes us. If we don't get into Europe it won't be for the want of trying because the players are giving absolutely everything. The staff are giving everything and have been brilliant to work with and there's a real good feel factor around the place at the minute and long may that continue."

The biggest attendance of the season at the Lone Moor Road venue played its part in getting Derry over the line against St Pat's on a night where the Dubliners dominated the ball and the goalscoring chances.

With those two crunch clashes against Bohs and Sligo at home on the horizon, Higgins knows the Brandywell support will play a huge role if his side are to secure a spot in the lucrative UEFA Europa Conference League next year.

"The crowd were absolutely brilliant tonight especially when Pats were dominating and had large periods in the game, they got right behind us and the difference when there's supporters in is mind blowing compared to when they're not here," said Higgins. "Our supporters I think can identify with this team and appreciate what the players are giving and the players appreciate what the supporters are giving as well so hopefully it remains that way for a long long time."

Nathan Gartside produced a string of excellent saves throughout the night including two match-winning stops to deny Sam Bone and Matty Smith in the dying stages of a thrilling clash.

Derry certainly rode their luck at times but it was an outstanding breakaway goal which earned the home lot a precious win.

"We played against an exceptional team who caused us major problems throughout the game but we rode the storm at times and managed to grind out a really exceptional result," said Higgins.

"They were the better team but we still looked a real threat on the break. We had three or four good chances ourselves. They were the dominant team, there's no getting away from that. They caused us problems. Forrester had a free role off the left hand side and we couldn't get to grips with it.

"We just needed to stiffen up in that midfield area and play with two holders rather than one. Defensively we were better in the second half. I would also say it's probably the first time we've won a game where we probably haven't deserved to if you analyse the game and break it down. But I'll take it because the players have shown real heart and guts to get this result over the line.

"The problems we caused them in the first half were from counter attacks so it wasn't a surprise to me that we scored from a breakaway.

"Jack Malone chose the right pass, Jamie (McGonigle) made a great run down the right and put in an absolutely unbelievable cross early with pace on it. And Junior has shown drive to get in at the back post and bury it so it was a really classy counter attacking goal. Two players at the top end of the pitch who have been great for us in the last month or two have come up with a piece of quality to win us the game.

"Nathan (Gartside) has made a few brilliant saves in fairness. Pats created a lot of chances, more than I would like and I'm sure they will be coming away from here extremely disappointed they haven't got something out of the game. It's the first time we've won a game where we probably haven't deserved it so we'll take it."

The only sour note of the night was the dismissal of Danny Lafferty who was shown a second yellow card for getting involved in a fracas after Ronan Coughlan elbowed Ciaran Coll off the ball.

"When you're on a yellow you should remove yourself from the situation but listen, Danny is a real experienced player and he's been brilliant for me," stated Higgins. "I'm not going to be too critical but he should've got himself offside from the incident and not give the referee a decision to make. He was probably trying to get people away from the incident and came across aggressive, I don't know. But listen, I don't want to be too critical of Danny because he's had a brilliant few months for us and has been a big player for us. He probably knows he should've got away from it."

Derry don't play again until next Sunday when they travel to Drogheda United and Higgins hopes his side can continue to display the same courage and belief when they take on Tim Clancy's side as they look to keep on the heels of Sligo.

"We've beaten a really really good St Pats team, albeit we weren't exceptional at all but we showed high levels of courage and belief and drive and all those things. It's a real together group and they're driving on together and the staff are working hard as well. It's so far so good but there's plenty of work to do from now and until the end of the season."

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Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe nets winner against Saints as Derry City close in on third