When Stephen Kenny first left Derry City back in December, 2007, no sense of foreboding followed.
After all, if Kenny was regarded as the League of Ireland’s best manager, then there were plenty of people prepared to argue the toss and insist, instead, that it was Pat Fenlon.
So when Fenlon rolled up in the Brandywell shortly after Kenny exited it, success was expected to arrive almost immediately.
Instead only Shelbourne’s fringe players made the same journey – none of them proving a hit – and a short, unhappy and unsuccessful reign interrupted the momentum Kenny and Paul Hegarty had built.
Four years on, the lessons have been seemingly learned. Again Kenny left – but whereas Fenlon was a predicted success, Declan Devine has no track record as a manager. What we did know was that he was a coach of unrivalled quality in Ireland. But would that be enough to satisfy a demanding Derry public?
Five games into his reign, it’s safe to say it is. For those five games have brought four victories and a credible draw (at Windsor Park). Devine, with Hegarty alongside him, has proved that continuity does work.
Players Not Distracted
“What I am most pleased about,” said Devine after Friday night’s cruise at the Carlisle Grounds, “is the fact the players have not been distracted by the hype and hysteria which followed the managerial change.
“They’ve stayed calm. They’ve worked hard and the football they’ve played has been good. On Friday, it was more than good. The technical excellence was there. That’s what I’m really pleased about,” he added.
Yet if he thought long and hard about it – and when you drive back from Bray on a Friday night, the amount of thinking time you are allowed is plentiful – there would be a number of things he, and his stand-in captain, Barry Molloy, could be pleased with.
One is the form of the kids, the McEleneys and the McDaids. Their integration into the Devine system has been flawless. As has his new signings, Simon Madden and Rory Patterson.
Before we go any further, the system itself, a 4-3-3 format which can at any point, turn into a 4-2-4, is completely confusing opponents who have found themselves outnumber and outplayed whenever they have faced it.
“The thing about it, is that it is easy to understand,” said Molloy. “Declan explains it without any complications. We all know our jobs,” claimed the 28-year-old.
Molloy’s principle job is to ensure the team has a defensive shape – no matter what is going on around him. Yet while this suggests that one of the most mobile players of his generation has a chain wrapped around his ankle – a reminder that he is not allowed to press forward beyond the centre circle – then we saw no evidence of that in Bray last weekend.
Instead, Derry attacked and defended in numbers. Molloy was magical, Ruaidhri Higgins, beside him, equally influential and in attack while Patterson gave the impression that he would end the season with 30 goals.
“Rory has settled superbly well with us,” continued Molloy. “He works hard and that sits well with us because when we came back to pre-season, we said to one another that our intention was to go through the season as the fittest team in the League.
“We are that. We work tirelessly. Declan pushes and encourages us. Paul is really popular with the players. We believe in the management and believe in their system, so we hope to do well.”
Already they are doing well. Bohs and Bray have been conquered – decent achievements – and at this early juncture, Derry are table-toppers. But can they stay there?
While Shamrock Rovers are expected to collect a third successive title – it is worth noting that this hasn’t been achieved in the League since the 1980s, when Rovers were buying up the best players in other clubs and moving past them with ease.
A quarter of a century on, little has changed. Rovers are back in charge – and Derry are the coming team. Sligo may contend again. St Pat’s certainly should – but after that, it’s a flawed league. It’s there for Derry to make of it what they like.
Molloy said: “A good start is always encouraging but that’s all we have achieved – a start.
“Bray was good – but last Monday we didn’t really get out of the traps against Linfield. We were disappointed with that one – but then we spoke in the changing room afterwards, and said, ‘right, can we up it another level or two when we play next?”
The answer was they could.
While Bray were unfortunate to have their keeper, Darren Quigley dismissed, the truth is the game had gone away from them long before that stage.
David McDaid, out wide on the right, was in sparkling form. If he ends this season in England dubbed the next James McClean then no one will be shocked. Nor will anyone be shocked if Patterson reaches cult status among the Brandywell Faithful.
“What Rory gives you is genuine intent and genuine effort,” maintained Devine.
And what every Derry player gave was a tempo which Bray could hardly cope with.
Molloy added: “We know what is expected of us when we go out and play. The demands are simple, to press and to pass the ball. First and foremost we want to be a hard-working team but we are positive in our approach too. That’s important.”
But just as important is Stewart Graecen, the big Scotsman, who broke the deadlock on Friday and who is the calm head at the back. He, Molloy, Gerard Doherty, Higgins and Patterson provide the wisdom. McDaid, McEleney and McEleney provide the legs.
“It is a good combination,” claims Molloy. “And it reminds me of 2005 a lot – when myself, Kevin Deery, Ruaidhri and Mark Farren – were coming through.
“But the important thing is to have togetherness. We have that. We just want to keep it going for as long as possible.”
There is no end in sight just yet.
BRAY WANDERERS - Quigley; Doyle, Massey, Sweeney (Kelly half-time), Houston, Hanlon, O’Connor, Zambra, Knight (Kane 34 mins); Byrne (Bolger 84), Waters.
DERRY CITY - Doherty; Madden, Greacen, Shane McEleney, McCaffery; Higgins, Molloy; McDaid (Morrison 77), P. McEleney (Farren, 68), McLaughlin (Curran 77); Patterson.
REFEREE - Mr. Anthony Buttimer (Cork)