DERRY CITY: The Sky's the Limit for City's Euro Stars
IT WAS a case of mission accomplished as Rory Patterson's second half winner against Bohemians booked Derry City's ticket to Europe last Friday night.
However, City boss, Kenny Shiels isn’t one to rest on his laurels and is already plotting his masterplan for 2017 as he bids to close the gap on the league’s top two.
Shiels has approached his first season in charge by setting small targets, taking small steps and adopting a ‘game by game’ mentality.
His first objective was to avoid another relegation battle. When that was quickly achieved he targeted a sixth place finish while carefully tempering growing expectations.
As momentum grew Shiels turned his attentions to bringing European football back to Brandywell for the first time since 2013 and he’s achieved that with two games to spare.
Now he’s just one win away from his next target of cementing third spot, to reinforce his statement that Derry are ‘at least the third best team in the country’ as they prepare for their final home game of the season against Sligo this weekend.
Currently five points clear of fourth placed Shamrock Rovers, it’s fair to say City are a safe bet to hold on to third!
But the most pleasing aspect of all is how Shiels has managed to achieve so much while playing an excellent brand of football with the nucleus of his squad hailing from the North West area.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround from the past two seasons at the club where supporters have had to put up with managerial upheavals and relegation dogfights.
With two games yet to play, Derry has already surpassed their 2015 points total by an incredible 21 points.
Shiels’ side has scored 12 more goals this season and conceded 14 less despite losing his influential skipper and both centre backs, Ryan McBride and Aaron Barry for the best part of three months.
Last year Derry finished a hopeless 32 points behind second placed Cork City but after Friday night’s games the club have closed that seemingly insurmountable gap to just eight, albeit the Rebels have two games in hand.
But no one can argue there hasn’t been incredible progress made at the Lone Moor Road venue this season under the Co. Derry native.
He’s brought stability, two Cup semi-finals and European football back to Brandywell and he’s done it in some style with a youthful side, sprinkled with experience down the spine of the squad.
Shiels has instilled real belief in the players but the emergence of some top young talent has been the story of the season and how the manager has allowed them to express themselves and play without fear has been refreshing.
How many Derry City supporters can honestly say they’ve not been surprised by how the likes of Conor McDermott (19) and Ronan Curtis (21) in particular, have made such a positive imprint in the team? But it will come as little shock to those who have charted Shiels’ progress over the course of the past decade where there’s been plenty of evidence of his dedication to youth development.
Derry City fans will take great hope from the team Shiels is developing at Brandywell and with plenty to look forward to in 2017, the Derry boss takes great pleasure in having proven the doubters wrong.
“First of all we wanted to avoid relegation,” said Shiels. “I looked at the paper I bought the first week and one of the Dublin papers had a pullout at the start of the season. Bray were 66/1 to win the league and Derry City were 150/1 - equal outsiders with Wexford and Finn Harps.
“We’re a bit behind Dundalk and Cork and next season we’ll look to reduce the gap,” he added. “We’re eight points less than Cork at the moment which could be 14 once they play their two games in hand so there’s a bit of a gap to close there.
“But if we can develop and improve then that’s the be all and end all for me. I don’t just want to bring in these big name players. Every club above us has former Derry players in their team. They’re good players that we’ve lost at the start of the season and we weren’t given a prayer. But how we did it is important.
“I’m not saying we did it in style tonight (against Bohs) but if you look at the way we’ve played this season as a whole. And that has probably been the top of my demands.
“We need to be winning more but we’ve won 15 games and drawn 11 and lost five, That’s good batting. If you lose five games out of 31 that’s pretty good.
“The season has been about developing everybody, the players, myself and the staff. I think everybody has learned a lot this season. You have to learn and we can only get better!”
Shiels will start strengthening his side for next season and will continue contract negotiations with his current panel but first he wants to finish this season off as strongly as possible.
“That’s the first mission completed,” continued the City boss. “The next mission is to seal third position. The message next week is to win to get third and that will make it a fantastic season for everyone at the club. There’s no one single person who deserves praise. It’s been a collective effort.
“You can see the progress being made. They’re getting to know each other better all the time. I’m building a lot of relationships with the players. The product has to be exciting and dynamic and has to be pleasing on the eye for our supporters. Tonight it wasn’t but I’m glad we got the result.
“In July we were in a position where we lost our two centre backs - one of them the captain of the club - a massive hole and I really don’t know how we got through it. I played four fullbacks for quite a bit of the season but we’ve dug in and done fantastic,
“I can’t praise the players for what they’ve done and also myself and the staff for the way we went about it tactically. We didn’t resort to closing out games and defending to win. We tried to attack in every game and that’s a tremendous achievement, especially when you look at that handicap we had.”
Against Longford last week it looked like the exertions of the two FAI Cup semi-final games against Dundalk had taken its toll as City trailed 2-1.
However, Patterson popped up with two goals inside two minutes to put Derry back in the driving seat for third spot and European qualification.
And on Friday, despite almost total domination against Bohs, Derry again found themselves behind to a 17th minute Kurtis Byrne strike.
But not for the first time this season, the Candy Stripes dug deep and showed great character to finish the job with a one-sided 2-1 win as Patterson turned the ball into the net from close range much to the delight of the home support.
And Shiels dedicated the win to the Brandywell Faithful who he believes deserve to see their club back in Europe.
“We lost two semi-finals in this stadium and hadn’t won at home for a while so let’s feel good for the supporters - this was their night,” said the Derry boss.
“When you go out into the second half and you know you need to score two more than the opponent to win the game, it’s a big ask.
“I have to say the boys showed great character. Once we got into the lead there was a little bit of a lull to finish the game and the players got apprehensive.
“I spoke to them pre-game about giving something to our supporters because the last while we’ve been drawing at home despite dominating games.
“We wanted to dig deep and give something back.
“We hit the post and the bar in the first half and had a very good goal disallowed I kept thinking about the supporters, I genuinely was.
“We wanted to win for the supporters because they’ve come out expecting something,” he concluded.
And the future appears to holds more promise should Shiels manage to improve on the unexpectant success he’s enjoyed this season.