Late substitute, James Akintunde added insult to injury time with his stoppage time heroics against a battered-looking Bohemians at Dalymount on Friday night as Derry once again struck during what’s now been dubbed ‘Higgins Time’.
The result extended their lead at the top to three points with a game in hand ahead of last night’s trip to UCD.
Higgins made reference to the great Manchester United side of the 1990s and 2000s under Sir Alex Ferguson after his side’s dramatic comeback victory, and the Candy Stripes are beginning to develop a similar defining feature under the Limavady man.
It was the third time this season City have netted a stoppage time winner just seven games into the 2022 campaign and the ninth time they’ve scored a goal after 90 minutes since Higgins took charge last April!
It’s a remarkable statistic and the high frequency of late strikes certainly isn’t a flash in the pan as this squad has consistently shown character, a winning mentality and a real belief, no matter the opposition. While ‘Fergie time’ created an aura and was ultimately a myth, myths can be powerful things and Higgins will be hoping his side’s ability to strike late has the same subconscious effect on his players and the opposition as they continue to finish games in the ascendancy.
A Jamie McGonigle winner in the 95th minute against Shamrock Rovers, a 93rd minute Will Patching winning goal against St Pat’s and Akintunde’s dramatic header with the last touch of the match in Dalymount makes these rescue acts a defining trend in this Derry team who are setting the early season pace on the summit of the table. Those ‘Higgins Time’ strikes have amounted to NINE of the league leaders’ 17 points so far this year!
Shane McEleney reckons those late goals are no fluke and are partly down to the team’s rigorous pre-season training camp and the ‘togetherness’ and quality in the team.
“I think it’s from every one of us,” he said. “It’s togetherness. We’ll not lie down. There’s good drive there and plenty of fitness. You can see in the last seven or eight minutes it’s testament to us and the staff because of the good preseason we had.”
Matchwinner on Friday night, Akintunde also puts it down to a unique team spirit and positive mentality developed by the coaching staff and he believes the late goals can prove a motivational factor for the team going forward.
“It’s always good to get a last minute win,” he beamed afterwards. “You can see with the boys, they’ve got a good spirit and good mentality to keep driving. That probably carries on from last season where we got a few late goals. That mentality and character has carried through this season. Getting those late goals means a lot to us and adds more fire to our stomachs going into the next one.”
Derry sensed blood after Ronan Boyce got them back in the game with a well taken header from Cameron McJannet’s inswinging cross from the left just short of the hour mark. And Higgins wasn’t surprised his team went on to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in ruthless fashion.
“We asked them to play with courage, no matter where we go, home or away, to play with bravery,” said the City boss. “Keep going right until the end and the hard yards in preseason are obviously paying off as well. There’s great character in the group. We scored late but I think we deserved it.”
Higgins can take credit for being brave and decisive with his effective substitutions who, certainly on this occasion, made a significant impact in turning the tide.
Patrick McEleney was immense and dictated the game and displayed his leadership qualities when introduced for the injured Will Patching at the half-time interval. Whether that was an enforced change or not, it had the desired effect and Higgins has shown he’s never afraid to make big calls, alter the shape or tweak his formation when he feels the match isn’t going his way.
In fact the City boss has made NINE substitutions in and around the 60 minute mark in the opening seven games and the majority of those have been offensive-minded. He has introduced Patrick McEleney three times, Akintunde four, Michael Duffy once and Matty Smith on three occasions off the bench this term in a bid to clinch the win. And three of those subs made all the difference on Friday against the Gypsies, and particularly the decision to go with two up top which brought a frustrated looking McGonigle into the game.
With that wealth of attacking talent sitting on the bench, it’s no wonder Higgins didn’t dwell on making changes so early in the second half.
“I thought Patrick McEleney was absolutely instrumental in dragging the team back into the game and that’s what he does,” said Higgins. “When he’s fit and strong and happy I don’t think there’s a better sight in the league.”
Akintunde clearly relishes playing at Dalymount and answered Higgins’ call with his third goal against Bohs. “He scored a good goal here last year,” added Higgins. “He’s not an out-and-out goalscorer but he’s a real team player and has produced the goods again. I thought Matty Smith came into the game and injected real speed into it for us and drive and sometimes your substitutions work and sometimes they don’t and tonight they’ve done brilliant.”
A tactical masterclass or simply a product of a never-say-die mentality in the dressing room, it’s another three points on the board and with the frequency of these late significant goals, it seems the stars may be aligning for Derry City in their bid to sustain a genuine title charge.