TWENTY ONE new signings and yet Derry City has twice matched the best team in the country this season and currently sit well poised in the race for Europa League qualification!
Just to reiterate the fact, that’s 21 new players recruited by Derry City boss, Declan Devine from the start of the 2019 Airtricity Premier League campaign - an unprecedented turnaround of players through the gates of the Lone Moor Road venue.
Last season ex-Derry manager, Kenny Shiels had signed 17 players in total with seven of those departing the club before the conclusion of the season. However, it must be said, Devine’s acquisitions have, by and large, been to the betterment of the club.
The unity and fighting spirit amongst the group has been well documented and Devine and his backroom team’s decision to recruit local, young players with a mixture of players from further afield but yet who have experience and knowledge of the League of Ireland, has certainly reaped its rewards. Of course there has been a couple of notable exceptions to that rule, such as Colchester United loanee, Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe.
Derry City Chairman, Philip O’Doherty reacted last season to the vacuum of local talent in the first team and questionable signings by implementing a new transfer policy which enforced more rigorous medical assessments and ‘background checks’.
Well, so far it’s fair to say Devine and Co. have done their homework and worked hard to get the right people at the club who have, as Devine put it, ‘bought into the core values of the club’. Devine has been insistent from the offset in getting his players to really buy into what the club is about and what it’s trying to achieve. This ‘commitment culture’ has become a key ingredient to the success City has been enjoying this year.
A predicted year of transition has surprisingly, for most, turned into a season of real hope as this Derry team have proven to be a match for the best teams in the country.
With an EA Sports Cup semi-final to look forward to, a first round FAI Cup tie against Wexford and an exciting race for Europe, City fans can look forward to plenty more tasty fixtures in the coming months. It’s a far cry from the downward spiral the club seemed to be on as they flirted with relegation in 2018.
Top of the Hill native, Darren McCauley was one of those 21 new signings and he made a solid start to his second spell at the club when making his 11th competitive start for the Candy Stripes against Dundalk on Friday night. With Michael McCrudden, who got married at the weekend, expected to return in the next couple of weeks and ex-Reading striker, Conor Davis on board, there’s lots of attacking talent to help bolster City’s bid for European football.
The addition of experienced defender and another Derry man, Mark McChrystal, I believe, is another masterstroke by Devine and his team as the former Bristol Rovers and Crusaders man will be a positive influence, not just on the pitch but on the training field and the dressing room. He has bags of experience and a genuine love for the club.
Devine, whose wild touchline celebrations during the raucous scenes at the end of Friday night’s pulsating clash summed up the mood among the home support, has been vocal about his pride in the togetherness of his team after such a short time.
“You have to understand the lack of experience in this team,” he said. “You have to understand Mark McChrystal is the 21st signing of the season. You have to understand these guys only know each other six months. You have to understand there’s still a lot of development these guys have to go through.
"They have to get tactically better, technically better but mentally each one of them, to a man, have really earned their corn tonight because I thought they were so brave and so focused and determined.”
The belief Devine has instilled in this team has been most impressive, illustrated best in the late comeback against Dundalk as the man of the moment, Junior - who somehow failed to win the SSE Airtricity League player of the month for June - popped up to heroically head home a 94th minute equaliser.
It was the second time this Derry team has fought back to hold a richly talented Dundalk team who boast several members of the 2014 title winning team which kick-started the club’s impressive three-in-a-row success.
In contrast to Derry, Dundalk players have been playing together for quite a while and have grown into one of the best teams this country has seen in quite some time.
Vinny Perth and Co. have been handed the baton by former boss, Stephen Kenny who guided them to four league titles and they’re doing an outstanding job thus far as they lead the way in the league by a seemingly insurmountable eight points even at this early stage of the season.
Dundalk are ‘a class act’ as Devine stated. They’re the benchmark and hopefully they can do the league proud in their Champions League second leg qualifying tie against Latvian champions, Riga FC.
Perth, his assistant, Ruaidhri Higgins and his backroom team deserve plenty of praise for how they’ve proved any doubters wrong who perhaps felt the absence of future Ireland boss, Kenny would stop them in their tracks.
However, Devine and his team equally deserve high praise for how they’ve gone about their business this year. Last year Derry were brushed aside by a rampant Dundalk 4-0 and 4-1 on two visits to the Brandywell.
Devine was determined that the club wouldn’t be embarrassed again, especially at home and if they were to go down, they would go down fighting. It’s a mentality which has struck a chord with the Derry support and it was great to witness the celebrations and the many happy faces as they left the Brandywell last weekend.
Five points from three games last week which included trips to Cork City (4-1) and Bohemians (0-0) and a home game against Dundalk (2-2) isn’t to be sniffed at. While those fixtures were perhaps a defining run of games in terms of Derry’s hopes for a top three spot, the next run of games are just as important.
After six weeks without a home match, last Friday’s game was the first of three consecutive games at Brandywell and the pressure is on City to take maximum points from games against UCD and Sligo Rovers who are next up.
They must do so without club skipper, Barry McNamee, however, with the Ramelton man going on his pre-arranged summer holiday, but Devine has reinforced his team well and they should have enough firepower to garner six valuable points. Finally just a word on Dundalk’s Derry contingent. I know it’s been a topic of conversation in the stands for quite some time now but how good with this current Derry team be should the likes of McEleney, Duffy, Dean Jarvis and Georgie Kelly opt to return ‘home’?
Devine, who had both McEleney and Duffy under his wing during his first stint as manager at the club, is a big fan of both and no doubt would love to have them in his team. He even allowed his own thoughts to wander after Friday’s match.
“They are a fantastic side with a fantastic backroom team and they have four or five Derry lads playing for them. Imagine we had those boys in our team,” he said.
Both Duffy and McEleney are tied to long term deals, but you just never know in football.