Record breaking Derry City not giving up on league title chase
Ruaidhri Higgins' in-form team moved a massive 45 points clear of their Donegal neighbours with a sixth consecutive league victory which keeps them hot on the heels of the league leaders with four matches to go.
That gap between Derry and Harps has widened significantly as Ollie Horgan's side finished just 10 points behind the Candy Stripes in 2021 while only goal difference separated the two teams in 2020.
The revolving doors at Finn Park and the significant player turnaround hasn't helped Horgan's cause while Higgins has built an impressive squad who are battling on two fronts at the business end of the season.
Stakes are always high in North West derbies and this one was no different with Derry still in the hunt for the title with the incentive to close the gap on Rovers to two and Harps battling for Premier Division survival.
And yet this particular derby lacked the usual intensity, tenacity and bite we've grown accustomed to when these two teams meet. That was simply because Derry were a class above and without getting out of third gear they chalked off another important win which takes the title race down to the wire.
Hitting a hot streak at the perfect time, Derry's relentless pursuit of Rovers has given the Brandywell Faithful hope although there would've been a lot more optimism on Foyleside but for Rory Gaffney's controversial 95th minute winner against Shelbourne in Tallaght on Sunday night.
Higgins refuses to focus on the ‘uncontrollables’ and his one game at a time mentality has kept them in touch with the Dubliners and they remain with an outside chance of ruining Rovers' three-in-a-row bid.
Keeping clean sheets is the bedrock for consistency and Derry's steely defence has given the attack the platform to flourish.
Friday's 3-0 win was the Brandywell club's sixth consecutive shutout equalling a club record dating back 30 years!
Higgins, of course, was delighted with how his team has been building up ahead of steam.
"It's a brilliant win, 3-0 at home," said the City boss. "That's six clean sheets on the spin and I think that's the first time in 30 years since we've done that in the top flight.
"So great credit to the players and that's not just Brian (Maher) and the back four, that's everyone working extremely hard for each other.
“We scored three good goals tonight and we're delighted with the win."
Michael Duffy’s third goal of the season, Brandon Kavanagh's second half tap-in which doubled the lead and Jamie McGonigle’s fantastic stoppage time volley sealed a facile win.
However, the goals for column could’ve been added to significantly were it not for some excellent saves from James McKeown. He denied James Akintunde what looked like a certain goal in the second half and McGonigle from the penalty spot but those missed chances mattered little.
"There were periods where we were a wee bit sloppy,” added Higgins. “It's not going to be perfect all the time, it's just about managing those moments. It's a great win. It's a local derby and we've won comprehensively and probably should've won by more.
"I don't want to be singling people out because they all deserve huge credit. Some of the players are slightly disappointed in there which is actually a good sign, demanding more from ourselves.
"If we had showed a wee bit more composure at the top end we could’ve won by more.”
The win ensured a 17th consecutive unbeaten game domestically and it was an eighth win in a row in all competitions.
‘Winning breeds confidence’ added Higgins who hailed the connection between the team and the home support after another sell-out at the Lone Moor Road venue.
“It's great. Winning breeds confidence and there's a real bond in the group. A real togetherness and that's the main reason for me why we've put this run together.
"We need to keep that going,” he added. “There's a real connection throughout the club between players and supporters.
"I believe our supporters can see the effort the players are putting in and that's all you can ask for when you pull on the jersey that you give absolutely everything to try and win games of football.”
It’s clear Derry won’t give up hope of toppling Rovers until the final whistle on the final game of the season if it comes down to that clash with Dundalk at Brandywell.
There’s no doubt Derry’s form has unnerved Rovers though with Stephen Bradley conceding the club’s title tilt must take priority over its Europa Conference League venture.
Sunday’s last ditch 3-2 win over Shels keeps Rovers in the driving seat but Higgins knows Derry must give themselves every chance by winning their remaining matches.
"If we don't do what we have to do then it's irrelevant what anyone else does. We can't control anything that happens at that club. We just focus on ourselves and we're going well which is all that matters.”