KENNY SHIELS was not on the sidelines but it was the same old story for Derry City in the league on Friday night as they slumped to an alarming 15th defeat of this most inexplicable and inconsistent season.
In fact, it hasn’t been inconsistent - it’s been consistently poor as three wins in the last 16 league games testifies to.
And once again the club’s management were left scratching their heads at a problem they don’t seem able to solve.
Just when it looked like City had sorted out their defensive concerns with a rare clean sheet and cohesive display at the back against St Pat’s in the cup, it was all undone seven days later and their form remains as erratic as ever.
The key word in that previous sentence was ‘cup’ because that’s what Derry’s season has come down to with six league games remaining.
A 10th home defeat of the season on Friday night - their third on the bounce in the league - against a resurgent Bohs who moved to within two points of the Candy Stripes, has left Shiels’ men in sixth spot.
Forget about talk of securing fourth spot and a potential European place, Derry must now hope for three huge performances in the FAI Cup to ensure they’re back playing on the continent for a third successive season under Shiels.
However, the fact they meet this Bohemians side brimming with confidence in the quarter-finals at Brandywell once again doesn’t bode well although hopefully the international break will allow time to regroup.
The only silver lining is each time they’ve been written off this season, Derry have managed to deliver like they did against Sligo Rovers in the EA Sports Cup semi-final and Dinamo Minsk in the Europa League.
So how can this Derry team produce top displays in the cup and show the heart and character they did against St Pat’s in the second round, and follow it up with such a listless display in the league?
It’s a question which has left City’s assistant boss Hugh Harkin, who assumed managerial duties and conducted post-match interviews in the absence of Shiels on Friday night, scratching his head in bewilderment.
Is it the fact the players lift their performances only when there’s a trophy at stake now with the league falling down the list of priorities?
Heads went down far too easily when Dinny Corcoran fired into the net with not even 60 seconds on the clock.
It meant uphill battle and when the second goal went in early in the second half it was just a matter of Bohs closing out the game, albeit Derry did have a few decent efforts on goal.
Assistant boss, Harkin admitted to being ‘frustrated’ by the inconsistent league form and apathetic displays and he pulled no punches in his assessment of the players’ failings.
“We seem to be taking one step forward and two steps back every week,” said Harkin. “You can make all the excuses you want like, we have a young squad and it’s maybe a mental thing with them.
“But all the teams are the same. We have five U21 internationals and if you’re good enough to be an international you have to have the whole package in the game.
“I’m not just singling out those players but as a whole you have to have the mental strength as well and at the minute we seem to be lacking that cohesion.”
The radical changes in personnel mid-campaign hasn’t helped as rebuilding takes time but, as Harkin insists, ‘We can’t use that as an excuse’.
“We’ve brought a few new players in and tried to regenerate the team but we can’t use that as an excuse. The fitness levels and performance is there as you saw against St Pats. All you’re asking is can we replicate that?
“If we played the same way and were beat 1-0 then you can accept that and the fans can accept it.
“But when you capitulate the way we did in the second half - when the second goal went in it’s hard for us to take and for the fans to take - you can understand the frustration.”
The international break will allow time to address the shortcomings in the league and the EA Sports Cup Final on September 16th could offer the perfect shot in the arm. Indeed, a first trophy since 2012 could give the season a very different complexion.