"We're not a million miles away" - Ruaidhri Higgins reckons Derry City has closed the gap on Shamrock Rovers
RUAIDHRI Higgins wonders if Derry City could have pushed Shamrock Rovers all the way in the title race had Michael Duffy been available from the start of the season.
The former Dundalk winger came off the bench for the final 30 minutes of the stalemate at Brandywell and tormented the Rovers defence who were penned into their own half for much of the second half.
Duffy has been eased back into the Derry team following his broken leg sustained at home to Drogheda mid-March 10 minutes into his second debut and he showed against Rovers on Friday night exactly what the Candy Stripes have been missing.
Higgins hailed him as 'the best player in the country' and allowed himself to wonder if Derry would still be trailing Rovers by eight points if he had Duffy at his disposal for much of the campaign.
"You can look at it and go, we're eight points off Rovers and what would it potentially have been if Michael had been fit all season?, " asked the Derry boss.
"It's been a tough year for Michael but I have to say his attitude since he's got the injury has been amazing and his drive and will to get fit and back on the pitch is a credit to himself and he should be very proud of the condition he's come back in.
"I think it's a good time of the season. If you're going to get your best player back then the business end of the season is the time for it.
"There was a big roar when he came on and they (the fans) waited long enough I suppose. The drive and the hours and the sweat he's put in to get fit and back on the pitch . . . his movement off the ball, running at people and getting people off their seats, that's Michael Duffy and that's why, for me, when he's at it, he's the best player in the country."
Will Patching missed the first of seven penalties he took as a Derry player towards the end of the first half as Alan Mannus guessed correctly. And the 40 year-old Rovers keeper denied Duffy in the second half when the winger's side-footed effort looked destined for the bottom corner.
Duffy's last goal for Derry was against Rovers in the FAI Cup semi-final back in 2014 and had that chance at the Showgrounds end of the ground gone in on Friday night, it would've no doubt reignited the title race.
As it stands, Derry remain eight points off the pace at the top with 11 matches remaining. Higgins hasn't given up hope of making up ground - wishful thinking that may not be too fanciful given Rovers' European distractions with six group stage ties to come.
It may prove too big of a gap but after three hugely impressive displays against the champions this season, Higgins takes great satisfaction in the knowledge that his team are 'not a million miles' off Stephen Bradley's troops.
"What's pleasing is how far we've come. We're disappointed to have taken four points from nine when it should've been minuum seven against Shamrock Rovers.
"They leave here the happiest," he remarked. "There's no doubt about that. You could see their reaction at full-time. We just have to win the next game and go on a run because we're more than capable of it. You can see the talent we have now and the depth. It should be an exciting end to the season."
Higgins believes he's 'on the cusp' of building a formidable team himself on Foyleside and Friday's second half performance certainly backed that assessment.
It's feared monies raised from Rovers' historic European adventure could perhaps widen the gap between the Tallaght men and the best of the rest. However, Higgins knows, with time and the continued financial backing of chairman Mr Philip O'Doherty, he can build a competitive team.
"It certainly helps (Rovers' financial spoils from Europe) but it doesn't always guarantee success," said Higgins. "You've seen that over the years with certain clubs where you can have all the money in the world but if you don't use it wisely or plan properly it can hurt you. But I think the way they've invested over the years and the way they've built shows they know what they're doing there.
"You look at what Shamrock Rovers have done. Stephen (Bradley) took over midway through 2016 so he's been given the opportunity to build a formidable squad. They're in the group stages of Europe now and it shows what can happen if you have a plan and clearly they have had one. "We're not a million miles away, there's no doubt about that.
"But it's not our issue to worry about what they're doing," he continued. "Philip has been brilliant and Sean (Barrett) and Dodie (McGuinness) and the Board have been full of support since I've come in. So I'm very happy with how we're progressing as a club and that's my only concern.
"I know what direction we're going in and what we're trying to do. I think we should be a bit closer than what we are and to be fair Rovers do that well, they dig out results and fair play to them, they've done brilliantly to get into the group stages but I do think we're on the cusp of having a really, really good and competitive team here and it's exciting to be a part of it and leading it and I'm looking forward to what's to come.
"We kick on but there's no point putting in a performance like that tonight and not going and picking up three points next week. We need points on the board and try and put a run together."