AARON McEneff’s late strike against St Pat’s on Friday night garnered just a point for Derry City but for the midfielder it will be a moment he’ll cherish for the rest of his life.
It was quite the week for the McEneff family who, after grieving the loss of a close family member, watched talented brothers, Jordan and Aaron score memorable goals for their respective teams.
Jordan, who netted an extra-time strike as St Columb’s College clinched the N. Ireland Schools’ U16 Cup midweek, dedicated his goal to his big brother who was hit hard by the death of his godfather and uncle, John ‘Jap’ Sweeney.
And while the wounds are still raw for Aaron, in football you don’t have time to grieve and he was thrust straight back into the action in Buncrana for his hometown club.
Initially named as a substitute, McEneff was a late replacement for Nicky Low who was one of two players injured in the warm-up. And, with the adrenaline pumping, it was clear he was fired up for this one, forcing the inspired Conor O’Malley into two excellent saves during a bright opening 15 minutes.
But with the Saints seemingly on their way to a shock win through goals from Kurtis Byrne and a wonderful chip from his namesake, Curtis, either side of Ronan Curtis’ sublime strike, McEneff was to pop up with a ‘special’ equaliser.
My uncle is up there looking down but he couldn’t kick a football I’ll tell you that. But he’s obviously given us something to go on and score those goals.Aaron McEneff
As he wheeled away in celebration in front of the home support it was the perfect release for his pent up emotions after a mentally draining week.
“You would nearly say it was meant to be,” he smiled afterwards. “Thankfully it will be a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It was special. My uncle’s obviously up there looking down and hopefully he’s proud.
“But not only him, Ryan (McBride) and my coach (Ugo Ehiogu) as well. It’s been a hard few weeks for me personally.”
And how prepared was he mentally to be elevated into the starting XI after the injury sustained to Low, having missed the previous two matches and several training sessions?
“I was coming in to start on the bench and it was a late change,” he explained. “Mentally that’s a big ask to try and switch and you’re in the game straight away.
“Whenever I went on to the pitch I was running off adrenaline and I wanted to do well for myself, the fans and for my family.
“I thought first half, for not being mentally right and just being thrown in, I felt I did alright. I grew into the game and then in the second half I got one chance and one goal. When you take your chances like that it helps but as a collective I think we need to be more ruthless and finish off more of those chances we’re creating.”
McEneff was certainly ruthless with a clinical, composed finish on 86 minutes as Derry threw caution to the wind. While he admits his late uncle ‘couldn’t kick a football’, he was in no doubt his memory proved the motivation.
“I saw the chance developing and I just wandered into an area. Conor’s (McDermott) just toe-poked it to me and I’ve tried to put it across the keeper and I think it might have went through a player’s legs but it was a special moment
“And with Jordan scoring the other day in the final and my other brother, Nathan, who’s at home and offers more support than anybody. For my mum, dad and whole family it’s been a really hard time but I wanted to do well for them and for myself I need to push on and keep getting stronger.
“It is weird that we both scored big goals. I don’t know what to say about that, it’s obviously just meant to be. My uncle is up there looking down but he couldn’t kick a football I’ll tell you that,” he laughed. “But he’s obviously given us something to go on and score those goals. I’ve mixed emotions but it was a special moment which I’ll keep with me for the rest of my life.”
Following a miserable run of results in April, McEneff is confident of an upturn in fortunes.
“It has been a hard month or two for everyone involved in the football club. We haven’t won in the last three but we haven’t lost either.
“We’ll keep plugging away and as long as we keep creating the chances it’s bound to switch at some stage and whenever it does we’ll start beating teams and getting the three points and start making our way back up the table.”