Derry City must lay down a marker for next season by finishing second: says Mark Connolly

​MARK Connolly has stressed the importance of Derry City finishing the season as the second best team in the country and laying down a marker for next year, claiming the players will be playing for professional pride tonight when they host St Patrick's Athletic.
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​Given Derry's superior goal difference over the Saints in third, a draw will be enough to clinch that runners-up spot and the €70,000 prize money but Connolly expects to finish what has been a frustrating campaign on a high.

The Clones man returned to the fold after a lengthy absence for the 1-0 win over Cork at Turner's Cross having recovered from ankle ligament damage.

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He accepts the league campaign has been disappointing but once their league title bid failed, Connolly insists the mission was to take second spot and drive the standards ahead of another challenge next season.

It's been a frustrating year for Derry City’s Mark Connolly.It's been a frustrating year for Derry City’s Mark Connolly.
It's been a frustrating year for Derry City’s Mark Connolly.

"We have one more game before we finish and the first meeting we had this week we were told to make sure and finish off strongly and make sure we finish second and win the game on Friday because that's the standards the manager is trying to set," said Connolly.

"And that's the standard we have to have if we want to win leagues and trophies. That comes from all of us, not just one or two and the manager. That includes myself as a senior player.

"It's been difficult and frustrating and a lot of people have been frustrated but that means they care. Deep down that's the biggest thing, everyone cares at this club. "We're cut away from the Dublin environment and we're up here by ourselves and we need to stick together and next season and the season after that, we will be stronger and more successful."

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There's little difference in terms of financial rewards for finishing second as opposed to third but that's never been the incentive for the Derry players according to Connolly who insists they're playing 'purely for pride'.

"There's something like a 20 grand difference for finishing second or third or whatever that is but that has never been in anyone's head especially in the dressing room. It's purely a pride thing. If we can't finish first then the next best thing is making sure we finish second.

"That's been the frustrating part is we want to win, we want to do better. Psychologically people might look if we were to finish third and think it's been a step back. We haven't achieved what we wanted to achieve this season, which was to win the league. Unfortunately we haven't been good enough to do that.

"That's something we'll look at and we'll go away in the off season and make sure we're better next season which we will. We know areas where we need to improve. Goals are a big thing. Defensively, we're probably the best defence record in the league at the moment which is obviously a positive but we need to make sure we score more goals.

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"That's not put on one player, we all need to chip in with goals and that''s something we will work on for next season. For everyone it's been a frustrating season. There's no one thinking that's fine, we'll finish second or third, everyone is disappointed not to win the league and us as players and the coaches and manager will be looking at it.

"It was probably in the back of our head since Shamrock Rovers won the league that we needed to finish as high as we can."

Does he view the season as a missed opportunity given Shamrock Rovers' six match winless start and indifferent form during parts of the campaign?

"Every time you play in the league you want to win it so in that sense for us it's a missed opportunity. Moving forward next season is the next opportunity.

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"I really do feel this football club will be stronger every single year. The owner and the Board understand what's needed in this league. This league is getting stronger. There's a lot of money in this league, especially up in Dublin and there's a lot of teams who go under the radar with how much they're spending and bring some players in.

"People think with Philip (O'Doherty) that there's loads of money being thrown about but I don't think that's the case at the football club. I think Ruaidhri has definitely got an eye for a player and who he wants to bring in.

"He's not really bringing in many older players. There's myself and a few other boys who are probably in our prime at 30, 31. It's still a good age and we still have plenty of years left to play.

"There's a lot of young players that are going to develop and that's why I think this football club is just going to get stronger each year. People will think we're making excuses but it's been a really stop-start season. And the manager as well, he's had something happen that people don't want to happen in their lives.

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"I'm not one to make excuses but sometimes when you take a sit down and reflect on the year, it's been a tough year whether that with injuries or off field stuff. It's been one of those years.

"It wasn't our year but we need to make sure next year is and I'm really confident we will bounce back."

In terms of strengthening for next year and finding the goals which ultimately made the difference in their bid to topple Rovers, Connolly has acted as agent for the club’s most recent recruits, opening the door for the arrival of Paul McMullan and Danny Mullen in the summer.

He's played alongside Dundalk hitman Pat Hoban who has been heavily linked with a move to Foyleside and against out of contract Rovers striker Rory Gaffney who is also understood to be on Higgins' radar.

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Will he be helping the manager in his pursuit of potential targets in the close season?

"With Pat Hoban and Rory Gaffney, there's loads of speculation about who is going to come to the club but I haven't a clue about the ins and outs. What I can say is that they're two players, for any team in the league, they're record speaks for itself. "They're older lads but still fit boys and score goals. If someone like that was available for the football club I think it would be silly not to try and look into it to see if you have an opportunity to sign players like that.

"I also think, and I feel really sorry for the lad, but Colm Whelan would've been a superb player for us. I played against him for UCD and coming back in training and a few glimpses we got of him, away to Cork and at home to St Pats, there's a real, talented footballer there. He could've been the answer. He could've scored the goals we needed.

"It's maybe me making up excuses but it's stuff like that we've been very unlucky with certain situations. I'm not sure of Colm's return date but hopefully it's sooner rather than later because he's a brilliant player and a good lad and it's been extremely difficult for him so I hope he's back early.

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"Listen whoever the manager brings in, he's got a real eye for a platter,. He knows the players he wants and hopefully if he can get whoever he wants in I'm sure they will strengthen the team and next season we will be a lot stronger than we have been this season."

He's played just 15 league games this season due to injury and while most of the Derry team will be enjoying six to eight weeks off during the close season, the defender plans on making up for lost time.

"It's been a frustrating year with coming back here and wanting to win leagues and do well and then sitting in the stands watching, physically it's been difficult but mentally it's also been tough because I'm a passionate player and wear my heart in my sleeve and sitting around not playing has been difficult.

"Now I think to myself there's stuff I can change and do better and be better at next season. That's my plan. A lot of the boys are probably looking at the season coming to an end. It's been a long season for them.

"They've probably played 40 odd games or whatever, Whereas I'm looking at it where I will mentally switch off for maybe two weeks and then physically my whole focus is for next season."

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