Mark Connolly says Derry City must learn to win ugly to challenge Shamrock Rovers dominance
WIDESPREAD praise has been heaped on Derry City for playing an exciting brand of attacking football but Mark Connolly believes the team's ability to play ugly can help the Brandywell club reach the next level.
Two of the League of Ireland's most eye-catching teams meet in front of a record attendance at Tallaght Stadium tonight but Connolly won't be side-tracked into a beauty contest with the Dubliners.
The 30 year-old Clones man has added steel to the City defence since arriving last summer from Dundee United and he reckons the Candy Stripes must learn to fight in the trenches if they're to challenge Rovers' stranglehold on the league this term.
"I think people would see us as a team that can play football," said the former Wolves defender. "We've got some of the best players in the country but we also need to do the flip side of that.
"Big Shane (McEleney) beside me is a big man and can handle himself and I'd like to think I can handle myself as well.
"The big thing about us now is hopefully we can do both sides. If we need to play, we can play. If we need to roll our sleeves up and grind out results we can do that."
Connolly’s not just a physical presence at the heart of the City defence but he orchestrates from the back with his constant ‘shouting and screaming’ as he likes to put it.
"I think it helps sometimes but I'd say some of the boys probably get a bit fed up hearing that big Monaghan accent behind them shouting and screaming,” he laughed.
“Listen, I've always from a young age been like that. When I was at Wolves Mick McCarthy picked up on it and told me my reading of the game and my vocal side of my game will not just help me but others around me.
"It's tough, when you're blowing a wee bit in the 90th minute and you're trying to shout but all I'm trying to do is help the boys around me if I can. The smallest shout of a ‘right shoulder’, ‘left shoulder’ or ‘squeeze up’, it’s the little details like that I find are huge for everyone.”
His teammates would have reason for concern if he’s not on their back.
"If I stop shouting at you I obviously don't like you," he joked. "To be fair all the boys have bought into it.”
Already this season Derry have produced their trademark free-flowing football for spells but they certainly can't be accused of having a soft underbelly having battled out a 1-1 draw in Inchicore and dug deep to see off a resolute, physical Cork City side at Brandywell.
Knowing they have players who can produce moments of brilliance when the game's finely balanced, makes it all the more important for the City defence to be able to hold their own in any battle of attrition and to have the game management to know how and when to slow things down.
It's not as celebrated as fluid football or individual skill but it's an art form Connolly has perfected thanks to his GAA roots growing up in Clones and the early influence ex-Ireland boss Mick McCarthy had on his career while at Wolves.
And he believes that mentality will play a significant part in any potential league title charge for Derry this year.
"Massively,” he agreed. “I've always been someone who is quite aggressive but with Gaelic I found it helped me read the game a lot better. And with my passing as well. I used to always practise, not soccer football passing but Gaelic, out of my hand passing.
"I don't know if it's just the technique but I got used to passing the ball long, diagonal balls - it would be one of my strong points. But the Gaelic has definitely stood me in good stead, especially with my reading of the game and the aggressive side of it.
"We're missing a lot of players at the start of the season so sometimes to get into your stride in the league you need to grind out results.
"Getting that mindset along with playing good football, I think that's going to be a priority for us because in the forward areas we've got some of the best players in the league.
"So it's making sure, especially me and the boys at the back, that we keep as many clean sheets as we can and give the boys as many chances as we can and no doubt they'll take them.
"We want to win every game and be in control of every game but we know there will be days where we just have to roll up our sleeves and get through it.
"We've got Patrick McEleney or Michael Duffy, and so many of those boys in the middle and forward areas that can unlock any defence in this country. It's about making sure we do the dark side of things.
"As football goes on it kind of loses that sense of defending and the old arts of grinding out results. I think we're definitely getting there and the boys are buying into it.
"It's not just the defenders but the forward players and the midfielders are working extremely hard. Realistically that's where it comes from. It starts from the higher parts of the pitch.
"To be fair, even looking at the numbers and stats, the boys are running themselves into the ground which obviously makes our job easier at the back. “When we need to battle and win headers at the back, the back four is well capable of doing that."
Any meeting between Rovers and Derry this season is more likely to produce silk than steel but while Connolly is ready to wage a war in Tallaght if necessary, he expects the match to be an entertaining showcase for League of Ireland football.
"The biggest thing for us is going down there and putting in a performance. It's a fantastic stadium and realistically the benchmark for all the League of Ireland clubs in terms of stadium and facilities for fans.
"We know our job and what we need to do going there. We want to be pushing them to win the league. It's been too long since we won it but we know it's going to be an extremely tough game.
"We need to put on a performance and it will be a great game but I fancy ourselves anyway.
"This won't define our season but we want to make sure we're performing as well as we can and get as many points on the board as we can.
“They're the current champions and our eye is on trying to take that off them."