Derry City thumbs nose at critics as Ruaidhri Higgins hails character of title chasers
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The Derry City supremo felt his team's title credentials had been questioned in recent weeks and so he was delighted with how they responded to heart-wrenching setbacks in both Europe and in the FAI Cup where they succumbed to successive penalty shootout defeats.
Higgins conceded his team had 'rode their luck' at times on Friday night with Brian Maher producing a string of sensational saves to deny a dangerous Dundalk outfit who will now find it difficult to qualify for Europe never mind contend for the title.
No one has responded to critics as emphatically as Will Patching has and he was also in inspired form, getting the ball rolling with a brilliantly composed finish from 12 yards three minutes before the interval.
The Englishman can claim an assist of sorts for Ben Doherty's goal after the break as his shot was parried into his teammate's path by Nathan Sheppard before he netted the insurance goal from the penalty spot on 77 minutes when he was upended by Daniel Kelly.
After the 2-2 draw against Bohemians at Dalymount Park the previous weekend, this fixture would have serious implications on Derry's hopes of overhauling Shamrock Rovers.
And while Rovers clinched an ominous 3-0 win over Bohs at Tallaght on the same night, Derry remain hot on their heels, now in second place, seven points behind the Hoops with a game in hand.
With this result they served notice on their title rivals that they are not the depleted force some may have assumed despite missing key men Michael Duffy, Cameron Dummigan, Mark Connolly, Sadou Diallo and Ronan Boyce for this one – a common thread throughout the 2023 campaign!
"The players have a real togetherness at the minute," said Higgins. "People were asking how we would respond from the European defeat and I think the players showed 72 hours later their character to go to the well again.
"And then they did it again at Dalymount and again tonight. So I think it puts questions to bed about the character of this group.
"It's a huge win, especially in the sense that you go out in Europe, a penalty shootout, you go out in the cup, a penalty shootout - two games we should've won.
"You go to Dalymount Park, you get a point and play well and to follow it up with a brilliant win here is outstanding and a real credit to the players. To come here and play like that shows you where the players are at the moment.
"I think the last couple of months we've been very good. You can see the togetherness of our group on the pitch. They're all fighting for each other and digging in. We're at the business end of the season and it's about results.”
Dundalk boss Stephen O’Donnell felt it was his team’s best performance of the season and they certainly had enough chances to turn the game on its head. However, they didn’t have Brian Maher in goals!
The City stopper produced some incredible saves, none more impressive than his reaction stop to deny his teammate Shane McEleney at the near post late in the second half.
Higgins acknowledged his team’s fortune on the night but after a luckless few weeks it was about time the tide had turned.
And while Dundalk struck the woodwork it was less about luck, rather an inspirational display from City’s No.1 and their makeshift back four plus clinical finishing at the other end.
"I thought up until 2-0 we deserved to be in front. We've had awful luck in recent times. We have carried a bit of luck tonight but we've scored three brilliant goals.
"When you go 2-0 up at Oriel Park, your subconscious makes you want to hold on and you drop deeper and deeper.
"That invites crosses into the box and when you have people like Pat Hoban. . . Brian's made four or five incredible saves and we did ride our luck at times but I felt right up until the point we went 2-0 up we were thoroughly in control.
“Let's be honest, they pinned us in and we couldn't get out and they had chances.
“Then you look at say the Pat's cup game where you come away scratching your head thinking how have we not come through there. You come here and win 3-1 is a bit flattering but I don't care, we'll take it.”
After a brief exchange with his opposite number at the final whistle it was agreed Derry were due a slice of fortune against Dundalk who somehow escaped Brandywell with a point in the teams first meeting of the season back in March.
“We had to be more pragmatic here tonight. You look at the 0-0 at the Brandywell against Dundalk earlier in the season, we were really outstanding in the game and I spoke to Stevie briefly at full-time, saying 'it was a bit flattering that one' and he said 'aye but we maybe got away with one earlier in the season as well.' So football is funny. We'll not complain about leaving Oriel Park with three points.
It was just a second win in 20 games at the notoriously difficult Co. Louth venue for the Candy Stripes.
"Oriel Park is an extremely difficult place to come to. Under Stevie that they've lost very few games here. We've had to hang on, rode a bit of luck but still looked a threat on the counter attack. We had Brian Maher to thank for some big saves but I would describe it as a professional performance and a big three points.”