Derry City vs Riga: Belief is key to Euro progress claims Patrick McEleney

DERRY City is currently ranked a lowly 365th in the UEFA club standings but Patrick McEleney insists the Brandywell club must shift its mentality when it comes to competing in European football.

The Candy Stripes’ famous 2006 UEFA Cup run remains the club’s European highlight and the UEFA coefficients sadly reflect its progress on the continent over the past 16 years since going head-to-head with Gothenburg and then the mighty Paris St Germain at the Parc des Princes.

Derry failed to progress past the first round of the Europa League qualifiers in their past three ties with FC Midtjylland, Dinamo Minsk and FK Riteriai respectively and have perhaps developed an inferiority complex against teams ranked above them in UEFA’s coefficients.

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They enter the first round of UEFA’s third tier club competition, the Europa Conference League, this Thursday facing a tough but not insurmountable task against a team 220 places above them, a team that has never lost a Conference League match after 90 minutes (one win, three draws).

Patrick McEleney says Derry City must believe they're good enough to progress in Europe.

The last time the Brandywell outfit progressed past that first hurdle in European competitions was in 2014/15 when they dismantled Welsh minnows Aberystwyth Town before losing emphatically 6-1 on aggregate against Belurussian side Shakhtyor Soligorsk.

McEleney, his brother, Shane, and Michael Duffy were all part of that squad but ‘Fats’ believes the mentality of Irish clubs was different back then when there was no expectation to progress.

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Shamrock Rovers were the first to break the glass ceiling of an Irish club qualifying for Europa League group phase under Michael O’Neill in 2011. McEleney was instrumental as Dundalk took it that step further by becoming the first Irish side to pick up points in the group stages in 2016.

In fact they were the first Irish team to qualify for the group stages twice and were twice within one game of making it into the Champions League proper when losing to Legia Warsaw in 2016/17 and Faroese outfit KÍ in the 2020/21 season.

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Patrick McEleney pictured in action against Trabzonspor in the Europa League qualifiers in 2013.

Those significant moments changed the landscape for Irish clubs in European club competitions and ‘Fats’ insists Derry City must develop that same self-belief which took the Lilywhites to those heady heights during his time at Oriel Park.

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It’s the highlight of the season for fans but the pleasure derived from a thrilling but ultimately fruitless European adventure isn’t enough for the Shantallow man who stole the show on his last outing in Europe with a spectacular brace against Vitesse Arnhem in the Netherlands.

“Now when you look at it, teams have qualified for the group stages. I think people look at it differently now. Whereas then (back in 2014/15), it was an attitude where we were just glad to be there.

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“It’s at the stage now were you have to believe in what you’re doing. It’s a brilliant time for the fans. The more rounds you get through, the more they can travel and see different places.

You have to have a proper go at it for it to be enjoyable. It’s not about just turning up and getting your belly rubbed. You have to be set up properly and have a go.”

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Ruaidhri Higgins played a key role in analysing Riga when Dundalk were paired with them in the Champions League qualifiers in 2019. Dundalk edged past them on penalties after two scoreless draws and with all the information available on their Latvian opponents, Fats’ expects every Derry player to be fully versed on their specific jobs.

“It’s different now, teams do their homework properly whereas before it was, ‘This is who we’re playing, let’s walk up and have a go’. The fact Shamrock Rovers, and at Dundalk we did it twice, got to the group stages, it’s the mindset where you think this can be done if you do it right. You have that belief.

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“It’s not just about taking part, players are thinking, ‘What can we do here to progress?’ And Ruaidhri is brilliant at it, (scouting the opposition). I’ve seen that side of him at Dundalk in how he sets up and that all needs to be finely tuned for us to have a chance.”

There will also be some familiar faces in the Riga team with McEleney’s former Dundalk teammate, Latvian international left-back Raivis Jurkovskis, who made 41 appearances for the Lilywhites, joining the club after leaving Oriel Park in 2021.

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When Dundalk knocked BATE Borisov out of the Champions League in 2016, McEleney was hugely impressed by Belarussian international Yuri Kendysh who has relocated to the Latvian capital this season. The 32 year-old defensive midfielder will be hoping to dictate the play and McEleney knows the Latvians will be a tough obstacle.

“They’re a good side,” he said. “We played them in 2019 and drew 0-0 in both games before beating them on penalties in the Champions League. I saw what they’re about and they are no mugs. They have Yuri Kendysh. I played against him in 2016 in the Champions League when he was playing for BATE Borisov and he was a serious operator. I obviously haven’t seen him in a few years but it will definitely be a tough game.”

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For ‘Fats’, who has played against teams like Arsenal, Zenit, Legia Warsaw and Qarabag, patience is key and being clinical with any chances that come your way is crucial.

“It’s literally a game of you have it, we have it - a game of chess. Once you have your chances you have to take them because they don’t come round too often. They keep the ball away from you and you have to be disciplined and keep your shape.

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“You can get picked off if you’re too open. I’ve been on the end of it when you’re at home and trying to score and get in front because you’re at home and then bang, bang, bang, the ball is in the back of the net.

“That’s how they do it. It’s slow play, they build up slowly and then they get into the final third and go up the gears and your head is frazzled because they’re that quick and they move that well and their timing is good. So you just have to be on it for an hour and a half, literally don’t switch off once. But we will look forward to it. It will be two tough games.

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“It’s definitely a tough draw for us but we will be set up right. We will look forward to it because it’s the best part of the year.”

The ex-Oldham forward reckons his experience in Europe will stand him in good stead and he’s excited to be representing his hometown club in Europe once more.

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“It will stand to me in a sense and it’s just about getting the message across in the right way to the other boys. These are top, top sides. People might look at it and say ‘it’s Riga from Latvia’ but you look through their squad and they have Belarusians, Ukrainians, South Americans, you just don’t pluck them out of the sky.

“They are watched and you obviously have to spend money to get them there. It’s all international players, Latvian internationals, Belarussian internationals, so it’s going to be tough but we have to get the message across to our boys that it can be done. Belief is the main thing!”

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