The draw for the UEFA Europa Conference League first qualifying round is due to take place next Tuesday, June 14th in Switzerland but Higgins has set his focus on reviving the Candy Stripes’ league campaign which faltered prior to the mid-season break.
Derry City enter the competition - won by Jose Mourinho’s Roma last season - for the first time and while Higgins can understand the ‘excitement’ building among fans for another adventure on the continent, he’s got his sights firmly set on three big league fixtures before that European tie comes around.
Before Derry set sail for Europe, the Brandywell club resumes its league campaign with games against Drogheda United (home) next Friday night, UCD and Bohemians (both away), hoping to arrest a concerning six match winless run. They begin preparations for those games with a friendly against Irish League outfit Cliftonville this afternoon (K.o.3p.m).
Provisionally the first round qualifiers are pencilled in for Thursday, July 7th and the return leg a week later on July 14th. With Derry experiencing a downturn in form prior to the mid-season interval which saw them slip behind Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk to third, Higgins is intent on resurrecting the club’s league title aspirations before concentrating on his debut campaign in the Europa Conference League.
“I’m not looking that far ahead,” said the City boss. “I do understand it’s an exciting time for everyone involved with the club but we’ve got to keep our focus on the league campaign and the upcoming Drogheda game.”
The draw for the first round is expected to be regionalised but Derry, as an unseeded team, can be potentially be paired with one of 30 seeded teams including Dinamo Minsk, who earned a 3-2 aggregate win in the Europa League first round against Derry in 2018, or Dinamo Tibilisi.
Those would prove logistical nightmares for the City Board to navigate but those fixtures ultimately depend on how UEFA finalise the draw in the coming days. However, other potential opponents include Irish League outfit Crusaders and Welsh club, Bala Town - two more appetising ties for the Foylesiders.
Flora Tallinn of Estonia, who ended Shamrock Rovers’ Europa Conference qualifying bid in 2021, are also seeded in the draw while avoiding Polish clubs Pogon Szczecin and Lechia Gdansk might prove to be a blessing.
Whoever the opposition, Higgins doesn’t expect an easy ride into the second round with the gap narrowing between the minnows and so called bigger clubs in the European leagues.
“They (games against Crusaders or Bala Town) would be exciting for supporters and crowds would be big but I’m not looking that far ahead at all,” he repeated.
“There’s a lot of big clubs involved. We’ll see what comes out but we’ve got business to take care of first domestically. We’ve three league games coming up so it’s not really at the forefront of my mind but it’s something to look forward to.
“There’s a lot of very, very strong clubs. What I would say is the gap has been vastly reduced. There used to be times you would get a draw that looked handy but those days are finished.
Everyone that plays in European competitions, teams are so well organised and well coached nowadays. So if we do get a big name club or if we don’t, it’s a European game so it will be a difficult fixture. Regardless of who we get it will be a difficult tie,” he added.
“As I said before, the draw is exciting but my priority at the minute is the three league games we’ve coming up.”
Derry earned their place in Europe this season after a hugely impressive finish to the 2021 league campaign and thanks to St Patrick’s Athletic’s FAI Cup triumph.
The club lasted participated in European competition in 2020 when FK Riteriai netted an extra time goal in the single-leg Europa League tie to earn a 3-2 win. Joe Thomson and Eoin Toal, two of only six surviving members of that team, scored the two Derry goals.