THIS was all about the 2016 season.
Though he remains loathed to answer questions on his own future just yet, the moment the final whistle sounded in the Market’s Field, Limerick last weekend, Paul Hegarty was planning for next season.
He was annoyed to lose to Bohemians on Friday night, probably even more so at the poor first half defending that gifted Keith Long’s team the win, but this match was played with one eye on matters off the pitch.
Paul Hegarty will be Derry City’s manager next season - if he wants to be. The ball is firmly in the Ballindrait’s man’s court and there has been no ambiguity from Hegarty on how he feels about the role.
“I don’t see this as a job at all,” he explained on Friday night. “This is something you love and you want to do it because it is in your blood, your DNA or whatever you want to call it. It is an honour for me to have managed the club.”
There are unlikely to be many hiccups with the formalities given the desire and passion which has helped Hegarty guide City to safety with a degree of comfort that didn’t look possible a month ago. After three wins and a draw from four games prior to Friday, it’s easy to forget the predicament the Brandywell club had been in when he took over the reins from Peter Hutton.
Whether the recruitment of a new manager - which the Board and supporters alike will hope is a long term appointment - should be based on five or six games; whatever the circumstance, is a debatable point but the club’s hierarchy knows Hegarty well and the response he has received from the players is indisputable.
Even in the defeat against Bohs (a meaningless game for the ‘Candy Stripes’ no matter what anyone tells you) the impact of the manager was clear.
What you see is what you get with the Donegal man. In the first half, a defence which has been the bedrock of his success since coming in, was all over the place. Bohs’ striker, Ismahil Akinade, ran the back four ragged and was a real handful for Ryan McBride and Aaron Barry.
Derry had conceded only one goal in the four previous games since Hegarty came in but Barry and Ben McLaughlin especially had an off-night last Friday.
Yet, after conceding three times more in 45 minutes on Friday than they had in 360 minutes previously, the caretaker manager reorganised his team at the interval and the result was another 45 minutes of domination which deserved at least a draw.
That response is further proof Hegarty has the players on his side. McLaughlin won’t be happy to have been hauled off at half-time but the result was a more compact Derry.
“(It was a) Disappointing result but I thought we deserved at least a point from the game,” claimed Hegarty, “Some of our play at times going forward was very, very good. We had problems earlier on in the season when we couldn’t create chances and couldn’t score goals, but we don’t have that problem now. Defensively tonight we were really poor in the first half.
“We completely controlled the game in the second half and you have to hand it to Dean Delany in the Bohemians goal, he pulled off three wonder saves to keep them in the game. In saying that, it is particularly disappointing with the goals we conceded.”
It’s difficult to argue with the manager’s synopsis. The first half was thrilling stuff but was far too open to suit either side. Hegarty has already demonstrated the ability to set his teams up in a variety of ways, should it be a fluid wing-back system or the more traditional 4-4-2 he deployed against Bohs which still left scope for the inter-change of players in forward positions.
His use of Mark Quigley was especially interesting. The former St Pat’s stop-start Derry career has seen only occasional performances, most of which were as a solitary front man. With Patrick McEleney not fit enough to start on Friday, Quigley came in but rather than play up against Bohs centre-halves Derek Predergast and Anto Murphy, he dropped deep and knitted play together excellently. It was his best display in a Derry shirt by some distance and he still carried a goal threat with some well timed runs into the box which too often went unnoticed by team-mates.
Hegarty’s big challenge, should he be confirmed, will be recruitment. More precisely the signing and resigning of players with all but four or five of the current first team squad going out of contract over the next couple of weeks.
In that sense, coming in midway through this season could prove a blessing for both Hegarty and the club. He now knows the squad well and has had the chance to see how they operate in a high pressure system. He will know the character of the players and often that is the most difficult thing to gauge with players.
Ability is crucial but normally obvious but character is something a manager only learns from working with the player.
Hegarty will have already identified players he wants to bring in and for some in the squad, next week’s trip to Longford could be their last chance to earn another contract.
One man who won’t have any worries on that front is Mark Timlin. This has been Timlin’s season. When Michael Duffy left for Celtic, it left a huge gap in the Derry squad but the Buncrana man has proved he is capable of filling that and if he continues his recent form, don’t be surprised if he becomes the next City player to make the move to full-time football in England or Scotland.
So now we wait for the announcement. Hegarty’s stint as caretaker is the reason even Friday’s defeat was greeted with a sense of optimism. The result didn’t matter. The appointment of the new manager does, and on the evidence of the last five games, Hegarty has given fans every reason to look forward to 2016.
Derry City: Gerard Doherty, Ben McLaughlin (Patrick McEleney, H/T), Dean Jarvis, Ryan McBride , Aaron Barry; Conor McCormack, Barry McNamee, Mark Quigley (Cillian Morrison, 82mins), Stephen Dooley, Ciaran O’Connor (Aaron McEneff, 68mins), Mark Timlin.
Bohemians: Dean Delany, Derek Prendergast, Karl Moore, Keith Buckley (Robbie Creevy, 92mins), Jake Kelly (Patrick Kavanagh, 77mins), Dylan Hayes, Anthony Murphy, Eoin Wearen, Jason Caffrey, Ismahil Akinade, Dave Mulcahy.
Referee: David McKeon.
Before the game kicked-off, the Brandywell crowd honoured former player, Bobby Gilbert and loyal supporter, Robbie Herron, who both passed away recently.