Ruaidhri Higgins isn't expecting overnight success at Derry City
and live on Freeview channel 276
Season ticket sales are at an all-time high and bookmakers have reacted to the close-season recruitment and continued backing of chairman Philip O’Doherty by shortening the odds on the Candy Stripes challenging reigning champions Shamrock Rovers in the race for the title.
Considering City trailed Rovers by a colossal 24 points when the season concluded, it would be an incredible transformation of fortunes on Foyleside should they become genuine title contenders this season and challenge the dominance of Stephen Bradley’s men.
However, with perennial winners like Patrick McEleney and Michael Duffy back home and star-studded arrivals like Will Patching, Cameron Dummigan and Matty Smith settling into their new surroundings seamlessly in pre-season, it’s easy to see why pundits and supporters alike are expecting big things from Higgins’ troops in 2022.
On the back of that outstanding turnaround last year which saw Higgins take the team from bottom of the table to Europe in just six months, there is understandable reason for optimism.
In fact, had the league started after six games last year Derry would have finished as runners-up!
Derry boss Higgins has his feet firmly planted under the table at Brandywell Stadium now as he faces into his first full season in the job but he’s not getting carried away by talk of chasing titles and it wasn’t surprising when he opted to take a pragmatic view when asked for an assessment of his team’s chances. He’s not expecting overnight success.
“Let’s be honest,” he began. “What was the points difference between us and Shamrock Rovers last season? Don’t get me wrong, we’ve signed good players. We’ve got good players that we’ve kept here but to make up that amount of points in one season, one transfer window, is a huge, huge ask.
“The key for us is to start the season as best we can. We couldn’t have asked for a harder start. Dundalk away, Shamrock Rovers at home, Sligo at home and Shelbourne away in the first four games.
“It’s a really, really tough start. All I really care about is Dundalk at this moment in time and anything beyond that is irrelevant to me.”
Making bold predictions might not be his style and understandably before a ball has been kicked but Higgins’ ambition is unquestionable and he admits he wouldn’t have taken the job if the club didn’t offer assurances that he would have the financial wherewithal to back a bid to bring a title to the club.
That’s a three-year plan which has been set in motion with some shrewd and timely transfer business. Everything appears to have aligned at just the right time for Higgins, whose arrival at Derry rather fortunately coincided with the expiration of Duffy and McEleney’s contracts at Dundalk. Or perhaps that isn’t quite a coincidence!
“It has worked well but when I took the job and accepted the offer I understood that these players were coming into the last years of their contract and we had a clear plan that we were going to go after them. And why should we not? They’re from here. They live five minutes from the Brandywell.
“It would actually be unprofessional and wouldn’t be right if we didn’t try and bring these players back to the club. For me, and I’ve said it before, if things are done right here and players are from Derry and playing in the League of Ireland then they should be playing for Derry City. That’s the way I see it and that’s the way I continue to see it.”
The omens are strong with Derry celebrating the 25-year anniversary of their last top-flight title victory in 1997, designing their home jersey to pay homage to Felix Healy’s legendary team.And perhaps it’s the best time to strike with managerial changes at rivals St Pat’s and Dundalk and with Bohemians losing several key players.
Whether that 25-year gap is bridged in 2022 remains to be seen but there’s certainly been huge strides made forward with Higgins attracting some of the league’s most exciting young talents through the gates of the Lone Moor Road venue and tying down some the club’s best Academy prospects on professional deals.
Getting his business done early in the window was an important factor for Higgins as he attempts to gel his new-look team into a cohesive unit but for those who have criticised Derry’s eyebrow-raising transfer policy, the Limavady man explains how the club has been moderate in using its financial resources.
Derry haven’t been ‘splashing the cash’ and the chairman’s billionaire status following the sale of his business didn’t alter the course of a pre-existing short-term plan to challenge for domestic honours.
“People have left the club as well, don’t forget so that money is there,” explained Higgins. “We’ve qualified for Europe when we weren’t expecting to qualify for Europe - so that’s more money.
“Season ticket sales have grown so that’s more money and so it balances itself out if you look at it from that angle. And that’s the angle we’ve looked at it from the club’s point of view. The other thing is, Philip sold his business. This was always the plan from April 23rd or from whatever date I took the job.
“This was always the plan or I wouldn’t have signed up to it to be honest. I want to make this club a success. The staff and the players, we all want to make this club as successful as possible.
“We know it’s not going to happen overnight but we’ve signed players and age profile is really important.
“We’ve a bit more experience now than we had but we’ve also added players coming into the primes of their careers and we’ve also added Brandon Kavanagh and Brian Maher, who are getting themselves going.
“So we’ve signed potential and we’ve signed players coming into their prime and signed experience. I think we’ve ticked a lot of boxes.
“However, Shamrock Rovers are the benchmark without a shadow of a doubt. They’re the team for everyone else to catch and it still remains that way.
“Our squad isn’t massive by any stretch of the imagination. If you actually break it down. Players have left the club and players have come in so there hasn’t been a huge increase in terms of numbers at all.”
Back in European competition thanks to that remarkable finish to the 2021 season and bolstered by the work done in the close-season transfer market, it promises to be an interesting season for Derry but what would Higgins regard as a successful campaign?
“We want to be in Europe every year. I think it’s really important for this club to get European football. A lot of the best memories I have as a player of playing for this club is from big European nights. There’s nothing better and I want to experience that as a manager as do all the coaches.
"The good thing is some of the players we’ve brought in have good experience in Europe as well. We have to make sure we try to keep this club in Europe every year, that’s the goal at the minute.”
Higgins has never been a fan of pre-season but given his astute attention to detail, surely he has benefited from having the last three months to prepare.
“To be honest I’m not a massive fan of pre-season. You like the edge coming in on a Monday morning knowing you’ve got a real fight on your hands on a Friday night and there’s that edge to the week.
“Whereas trying to keep the players motivated through pre-season is probably the toughest part.
“We were in Dublin from Monday, February 7th and I think that came at a really good time. It was something different and got us away from here and we got to spend a bit more time together and we’re in a really good position to prepare in the best possible manner for the Dundalk game.
“Fitness levels are improving and performance levels are improving and that’s all you can ask for.
“Scorelines and results are irrelevant to a degree. You don’t want to lose games at any point but the important thing is minutes and fitness and we’ve got a lot into their legs.”