Derry City implement masterplan to transform club after years of 'crisis management'

DERRY CITY Chairman Philip O’ Doherty’s infamous ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting at the end the 2020 season proved a defining moment for the Brandywell club.

By Simon Collins
Wednesday, 23rd June 2021, 12:15 pm

A detailed analysis of the on and off-field performance from 1985 to 2019 formed the basis of the club’s new approach and policies and resulted in an ambitious three-year plan.

The in-depth investigation reflected on the success and failures of the past 30 plus years at the club since its entry into the League of Ireland and resulted in former assistant manager, Hugh Harkin’s informative, independent, warts-and-all study of the club from the ground up.

The findings proved the catalyst for change and have provided a blueprint for the City Chairman and Board of Directors as they attempt to build a self-sustainable football club which has learned lessons from its past failings and years of ‘crisis management’.

Harkin, who was last at the club in the guise of assistant boss to Kenny Shiels in 2018, was perfectly placed to dissect where the club had gone wrong having spent 17 of those years occupying various roles with the Candy Stripes.

There’s been a full generation of Derry City supporters who have yet to watch the club be crowned league champions and the most glaring problem for Harkin was the amount of money wasted during that time on a significant turnaround of players and managers who had an average shelf life of only two years at the helm.

Born out of frustration as Derry continued to underachieve, Harkin collected statistical data on managerial performances and recruitment which was used to pave the way for a new model on transfers, infrastructure, scouting network, wage structures and contracts.

The club has already begun to implement the findings with new manager Ruaidhri Higgins seen as the perfect man to drive the club on and with a three-and-a-half-year timeframe to deliver a team which can challenge for the league title.

New boss Ruaidhri Higgins is seen as the man to implement Derry City's new long term plan and has been tasked with challenging for the league title within the next three years.

Higgins, who has ignited an immediate upturn in the team’s fortunes, will benefit from a more uniformed, structured approach to the club’s business as he attempts to build his own squad in the coming months, starting when the Summer transfer window opens this month.

Young talent like Ronan Boyce, Nathan Gartside, Eoin Toal and Ciaron Harkin have been tied down on longer term deals while plans to build a state-of-the-art new training base for the academy are well underway.

Harkin reckons the club is better served when everyone is working collectively on a unified goal and he’s optimistic for the future should the club fully implement its strategic new plan.

“It was born out of frustration because even when I was there you could see so many things that were wrong and thought, ‘Why are we doing this?’ said Harkin.

Former assistant manager Hugh Harkin produced a comprehensive study on Derry City's success and failures over the past 30 years which proved the catalyst for change.

“Everybody was working but working independently. Nobody knew what anyone else was doing. At the same time, you’re trying to build a club. If you want to be successful everyone has to be singing from the same hymn sheet.”

Harkin’s report was never written for publication but simply to inform and assess why the club has been underachieving for so long.

“I was at the club for 17 years as assistant manager twice, and set up the academy with Eddie (Seydak) and Quiggy (John Quigg), and worked under numerous managers,” he continued.

“I had ideas myself having been at the club and for me the club was just wasting money. It was crisis management every year, no matter how good or how poor the manager was they were getting rid of them without giving them a real chance to build something.

The infamous 'Come to Jesus' meeting proved the catalyst for change at Derry City Football Club.

“There were lots of obvious reasons why it was right to let some managers go but other managers probably weren’t given the chance,” he stated.

“There’s a lot of good people at the club, people who want it to be successful but there was no collective thinking. The website crew would have done their own bit, the fundraising crew would’ve done their own bit. The first team did theirs and the academy did theirs.

“So, I put it all on a powerpoint and a few of the board members saw a lot of truth in it and realised the need to change how they were going about their business.

“Derry’s now a mid-table, full-time team the way it’s operating. There’s nothing to show for the amount of money being put into the club year in, year out.

“The most productive part of it down through the years was the youth end of it. People like Ryan McBride, Barry McNamee and other players such as Michael Duffy, Ronan Curtis and Josh Daniels coming through plus all the other players now playing around all the leagues. There was something tangible at the end of it.

“Everybody has an opinion on what’s wrong at the club but at the end of the day that’s only opinion, it’s not facts. I tried to show it to the board by presenting facts and figures.

“We’ve been busy fools basically,” he said bluntly. “There’s been a lot of money wasted trying to achieve something that was never going to be sustainable.”

The in-depth study details the careers of 17 Derry City managers, half of which managed to keep hold of their jobs for one season or less, suggesting a disconnect between the club’s vision and how the manager is going about achieving it.

The final 10 years of the study show Derry has signed a staggering 176 players, 66 more than the most successful team during that period, Dundalk!

Those particular stats suggest the Lilywhites have put an onus on quality over quantity and it’s an area where Harkin believes the Candy Stripes need improving most.

“For me, the recruitment part is the biggest part,” he continued. “How the club recruits its players is vital. I don’t believe you have to have a massive pot of money. Yes, it helps and gets you where you want to be quicker. But, when myself, John Quigg and Eddie Seydak were there, we were at matches every week looking for players. We travelled all over the North West Inishowen and Donegal watching games but if you’re not prepared to stand at Dergview on a wet Tuesday night and get soaked in an attempt to find that rough diamond, then it won’t work.

“I think we got a few of those and that, to me, is recruitment. It’s about doing your work in advance, not waiting until the end of the season and letting eight or nine players go and asking where can we get another eight or nine from. At that stage you’re only taking what everyone else doesn’t want.

“For me the big thing in terms of recruitment, if you’re going to sign a player you have to have your due diligence done. There’s no point working on the say-so of an agent or by watching a Youtube video of a player’s best clips. You have to have that player watched four or five times.”

And given the absence of an established scouting network at the club, Harkin felt it was an area which needed prioritising.

“There are no scouts at Derry. There’s no scouting system at all. You’re relying on the manager phoning someone whom he knows asking what you think of this player?

“Managers were losing two or three of their best players each season to their rival plus releasing five or six that were on one year deals then having to sign a player just because he became available, even if he doesn’t necessarily fit into a system of how that manager wanted to play long term.

“If you’re going to sign a player, you have to look at how you want to play, what type of player you need, who’s out there and available and can I coach my young players in the academy to play the way I want to play.”

Chairman, Philip O’Doherty at the beginning of the season explained how the Board of Directors had opened all lines of communications with each of the club’s employees and coaching staff to ensure everyone is informed about the good, the bad and the ugly at the club. That was another essential improvement according to Harkin.

“The main thing I took out of it was getting the club moving in one direction with open communication so everybody knows what everyone is doing to try and achieve the one goal.

“Recruitment has to be done properly ad well as having an infrastructure which the club can build on. Instead of buying players you can start producing more of your own year after year. If you sell them across the Channel, that’s fine, it will go towards making the club more successful and sustainable.

“The fans have a big part to play as well. You’re not going to bluff the fans. If they see you’re buying a player no one has heard of and you’re giving them a year contract to see if you like them or they like the club then what you’re basically saying is; ‘I have no faith in you’. If you’re signing players on that basis then it’s a recipe for disaster and the fans will see it.

“The fans however have to be realistic and patient. If they see things are being done in the right way and get behind the club in large numbers, anything is possible.”

The establishment of the club’s own all-purpose training base will go some way towards improving its academy structures and developing talent as well as attracting top young prospects and senior players. Those plans are in still their infancy but going in the right direction.

“You look around and see all these Inishowen/Donegal teams with their own setups and you ask why Derry can’t do it? Why can’t we have our own proper training facility that can be used by the whole team and even the wider community?

“I think Derry has massive potential, it really has if things are done right. We just couldn’t keep doing the way we were going. It’s not always about changing the manager, the coach, or the players, sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture.

“Nothing is ever guaranteed in football but if things are done right and everyone pulls in the same direction there is no reason why Derry can’t be in the top three every year and even bring home the title.”