DERRY CITY’s FAI Cup dream ended at the second hurdle but the Candy Stripes can hold their heads high having run last year’s ‘double’ champions so close in a pulsating tie at Brandywell.
Dundalk remain the benchmark in Irish football and while Derry have yet to beat them this season in four attempts, they’ve shown they can compete against a team regarded by many as one of the best this country has ever seen.
But just how far off are Derry City from actually returning to the top of League of Ireland football and challenging the Lilywhites for the top honours?
On Friday there was more than a place in the quarter-finals at stake as Derry attempted to put the skids on Dundalk’s attempts to match the Brandywell club’s domestic ‘treble’ success on what is the 30th anniversary year of Jim McLaughlin’s side’s outstanding feat.
The man himself was present at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium on Friday to watch two teams close to his heart, two teams with whom he enjoyed so much success during an unrivalled management career.
Not too many people had given Derry hope of dispatching a star-studded Dundalk side prior to kick-off and certainly not at half-time when the home side trailed to Daniel Kelly’s opening strike.
But Greg Sloggett’s finish following a superb team move shortly after the interval gave Derry fans hope.
As did Darren McCauley’s fine finish at the near post six minutes from the end of normal time and that’s what hurt most in the end as that hope of marching on in the competition was cruelly taken away by an ex-Candy Stripe, Georgie Kelly, who slipped through the net.
Ciaron Harkin came to within the width of the crossbar of snatching victory in the fifth minute of six minutes of stoppage time but no one could’ve argued with the result had it went in such was Derry’s will to win in the latter stages of the tie.
Dundalk, however, have an abundance of talent and strength in depth. To be able to bring off the league’s top marksman, Pat Hoban and replace him with the quality of Georgie Kelly just shows you their embarrassment of riches.
Following Stephen Kenny’s unprecedented six year reign, during which time he delivered four league titles, two FAI Cups, two League Cups and many glorious European nights, the baton was successful handed over to the triumvirate of Vinny Perth, Ruaidhri Higgins and John Gill.
And yet, despite the departure of such a huge figure, they’re still quite a distance ahead of their nearest rivals. While Cork City have succumbed to the changing of the guard at Turner’s Cross, Shamrock Rovers have closed the gap as Stephen Bradley’s long term vision begins to take shape in Tallaght.
They have the riches to knock Dundalk off their perch in the coming seasons but where do Derry City stand in the grand scheme of things?
One has to remember last season’s disastrous league campaign when the Foylesiders narrowly escaped a relegation play-off.
Derry had regressed in the Premier Division but this past eight months has already been a phenomenal success under Declan Devine and his backroom team.
They’ve re-laid the foundations and allowed the team and indeed the whole club and its fanbase to grow again.
And it’s not just green shoots of recovery we’re witnessing but the emergence of a team which can potentially be a major threat to the superiority of the top two if properly reinforced over the next couple of seasons.
They’ve handed Dundalk their toughest tests in domestic competition this season during two exciting 2-2 draws in Oriel Park and Brandywell and again on Friday night in that thrilling FAI Cup clash.
Derry have also failed to beat Rovers this season in four attempts (three losses and one draw) but they have two more attempts to get one over Dundalk in the EA Sports Cup Final and at Oriel Park in the league on October 4th to prove they’ve closed that gap.
The Candy Stripes have a way to go before they can compete with Dundalk and Rovers over the course of a league campaign but they’ve proven over 90 minutes they can be more than a match thanks to a quality side with plenty of promise and a passion and workrate equal to anyone else.
"Rome wasn’t built in a day,” said Devine when asked if he was closing the gap on Dundalk. “It’s a big gap but we are where we are and we’re happy with the players we have at this club.
"We understand it will take a couple of transfer windows. It is about closing the gap on the top two. They are so far ahead, let’s be honest. But in a 90 or a 120 minutes game, we’re more than a match for anybody in this league.”
Since 2013 Derry have won just one of the 26 meetings between the two sides. In 88 competitive meetings with the Lilywhites since entering the League of Ireland Derry have won just 25, Dundalk winning 42, but recent fixtures under Devine have been fiercely competitive and we can take plenty of solace from that as the team licks its wounds following the disappointment of Friday and looks ahead to gunning down Bohs for third spot.
There is real belief in this Derry team and the way in which Devine trailed his troops over to the South End Park stand ahead of extra-time on Friday to feed off the fans was reminiscent of how Kenny got an extra 10 per cent from his players during the League Cup Final against Shelbourne at Brandywell and the FAI Cup decider against St Pat’s at the old Lansdowne Road in 2006.
The Brandywell was rocking again on Friday and while the final whistle was greeted with huge disappointment and regret, Devine felt it was a throwback to the glory days of Kenny’s reign when the club were battling with the best for silverware.
“It felt like a Brandywell that was right back on top of Irish football again, going toe to toe with the best and that’s ultimately what we want to try and achieve over a longer period of time.”
It’s the what-ifs that hurt. What if Harkin’s strike found the net? What if David Parkhouse had been available?
In truth should Dundalk go on to lift the cup, no one will remember Harkin’s shot crashing off the crossbar or that Derry were understrength as they came so close to toppling the Co. Louth men.
Let’s hope Derry can reproduce just as gallant an effort when the teams meet again at Brandywell on September 14th for the EA Sports Cup decider.
And hopefully Devine can lift his team’s spirits ahead of Friday’s trip to Waterford as they resume their fight for Euro qualification because there’s still plenty to play for to ensure a memorable season for all involved.