Derry City vs Riga: Shane McEleney excited to savour Euro opportunity he thought had gone

SHANE McEleney had all but given up on playing European football again before Derry City came calling at the end of last season.

At the age of 31 the big centre half found himself fighting for survival in the Premier Division with Finn Harps and destined for another campaign hovering around the bottom end of the table with Derry’s Donegal neighbours. That was until Ruaidhri Higgins lifted the phone to offer the Shantallow man a Euro lifeline and he could allow himself to dream about playing on the continent once more.

“One of my best footballing memories was away to Trabzonspor, I think there were 20,000 odd at the game,” recalls McEleney. “It was just an electric atmosphere. We went out, had a good game and it ended 4-2. It was a mad game and an exciting one to play in.

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“Those European games, when you’re looking back at your career, those are always the ones that stick out in your head. They’re brilliant.”

Derry's Shane McEleney and Trabzonspor's Zeki Yavru during the Europa League Second Qualifying Round 2nd Leg in 2013.

He’s represented his hometown club in European competition three times during his previous spell against Trabzonspor, Aberystwyth Town and Shakhtyor Soligorsk. Despite two heavy defeats in the Europa League second round qualifiers against the Turks (7-2 on aggregate) and the Belarussians (6-1 on aggregate) sandwiched in between an emphatic first round victory over Welsh outfit Aberystwyth, McEleney has fond memories of playing in Europe with the Candy Stripes.

When he left League of Ireland football to play in Canada following a frustrating spell with St Pat’s in 2016, he felt he was leaving behind any hopes of playing European football again.

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“The European draw gave us a bit of life as well after a poor run of form,” admits McEleney. “It will be an interesting game, a tough game against Riga. I never thought I’d get the chance to play in Europe again so we’re all really excited and looking forward to it.

“I didn’t think it would ever come around again and here it is,” he smiled. “I look forward to it personally and we will collectively but these are the games where you need to step up to the plate. We were all together watching the draw. It’s good for the camaraderie to sit down and watch it together.”

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McEleney hopes Derry’s Euro run doesn’t end at the first hurdle but he knows they face a stern test against the Latvians.

“Riga is a good side and well respected. We’ve got a home draw first so hopefully we can put on a good performance and the crowd can get behind us and then you never know. With a bit of luck in Europe you can go on a run.

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“I know it’s not an easy game but we’ll relish it. These are the games you look forward to as a player. Playing European games at Brandywell will be brilliant.

“This Riga team is experienced a, they’ve got a few quality players but when we get them at Brandywell and the crowd are behind us, then you never know.

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“It’s good for the boys who haven’t experienced it as well to experience a European night at the Brandywell. Going to Latvia, to a different climate and different supporters, it’s a brilliant experience for everybody.

It will be by no means easy but you have to relish those nights and be excited. Obviously there will be nerves as well as it’s a European fixture but nerves are good for both experienced players and the younger boys as well. We can’t wait for it now.”

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