James Crombie/INPHO Derek Pender celebrates with his Bohs team-mates.

'We've made absolutely massive progress... It's a credit to all the supporters that have put in the voluntary hours'

Captain Derek Pender on the progress made both on and off the pitch at Bohemians.

Updated at 15.03

IT PROMISES TO be another intriguing clash as Shamrock Rovers host Bohemians in the Premier Division tonight.

Both sides will feel they have enjoyed encouraging campaigns so far. The Hoops remain hopeful of maintaining a push for the title — they currently sit four points behind first-place Dundalk, who have two games in hand on them.

Bohs, meanwhile, sit third, 12 points adrift of their Dublin rivals. When you consider that Keith Long’s men finished sixth last year and lost important players such as JJ Lunney, Shane Supple, Daniel Kelly, Ian Morris and Dan Casey in the off-season, it is safe to say they have exceeded expectations this year.

Arguably Bohs’ best moments this season have come against Rovers, while Stephen Bradley’s men may regard the Dublin derby defeats as their lowest ebbs of the campaign.

A remarkable run has seen the Gypsies win seven and draw one of the last eight meetings between the sides. In total, Bohs’ part-timers are unbeaten in 10 domestic matches against their better-resourced opponents, with Rovers last defeating them in May 2017.

“There’s a little bit more in [Dublin derbies] than normal league games because of the expectation,” Bohs defender Derek ‘Detser’ Pender tells The42. “The last couple of them have been sold out, so they’re great to be involved in and we’re looking forward to it.”

And what does the club captain put their remarkable record against the Hoops down to?

“I don’t know, to be honest. Rovers are a really top side challenging for the league. If you look at the resources they have and players they brought in — two international players [Graham Burke and Danny Lafferty] over the window. We just try to look after ourselves and give everything we can and thankfully the last few results have gone our way. But we know Friday is a completely new game, so we just have to see how we go.”

And as consistent as their form has been against Rovers, is there a sense of disappointment that they have sometimes struggled to maintain this level against some less high-profile teams in the league?

“You could say that, but you have to look at it from the perspective of where we are as a squad, the good players that we have, we’re a very young team.

Keith knows that and with young players, you’re going to get inconsistency, because most of the lads on our team are playing their first season in senior football. But we try to go into each game and win — it’s no different whether we’re playing UCD or Rovers. It just happens to be this league is so hard and anybody can beat anybody.”

He adds: “If Keith was offered third position at the start of the season, I’d say he’d have took your hand off for it.”

And asked whether the team have overachieved this season in getting to their current standing, Pender replies: “People from the outside would probably say that. Within ourselves, we place big demands on each other. Keith puts big demands on the players and he expects the best from us.

“Where we are at the minute in the league is a testament to how far we’ve pushed it.”

At 35, Pender describes himself as the “elder statesman” of the club. In contrast with the defender’s experience, he is surrounded by a crop of promising youngsters starting out in the game, many of whom have excelled this season.

One player who attests to the skipper’s importance is Andy Lyons — the Ireland U19 international who only recently completed his Leaving Cert and has deputised for Pender at times.

“Detser has been great to me as he has been to all the younger players and squad as a whole. He looks after all the younger players,” the 19-year-old said recently.

“You learn so much from him all the time both on the pitch and off the pitch but because we play the same position, he has taught me so much on top of that.

“He makes you a better player every time you train with him. He’s been marking some of the same players for 8-10 years and he will always help me by giving me little snippets of information on them if I’m playing and how to mark them.”

andy-lyons Tommy Dickson / INPHO Pender has had a big influence on younger players at the club such as Andy Lyons (above). Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Some of the young players in question have returned to Ireland on the back of a disappointing spell at club level over in England. In addition to Long and his number two Trevor Croly, Pender is a vital influence in helping these bright prospects rediscover the self-confidence that was lost amid difficult times abroad.

“The lads that have been in England for a couple of years fell out of love with the game over there. They get a little bit lost. The likes of Danny Mandroiu and Conor [Levingston] have been unbelievable for us this year. When they come back in pre-season, that’s when they have to get their hunger back in the game. That’s what we try to do with our club. We make them feel at home and not put too much pressure on them, just make them enjoy their football again.”

Pender himself is no stranger to the trials and tribulations that the game routinely requires young players to navigate. Growing up in inner-city Dublin, he was friendly with a number of future League of Ireland players, including ex-international Wes Hoolahan.

The full-back lined out for renowned Dublin schoolboy club Belvedere from U9s to U17s, before linking up with Shelbourne, back when they were unquestionably Irish football’s dominant side, going on runs in Europe and playing against sides of the calibre of Deportivo.

However, it wasn’t until joining Dublin City under Dermot Keely in 2005 that Pender got his first proper taste of first-team football. He then helped the club gain promotion during his brief time there, but financial issues ensured they went out of existence shortly thereafter.

The young defender then won a second First Division title — this time with Shamrock Rovers in 2006. Yet he was not always an automatic starter and had a falling out with then-manager Pat Scully the following year, prompting his subsequent exit from the club.

Nevertheless, in two years apiece at Bray and St Patrick’s Athletic, Pender managed to finally acquire consistent game time in the top flight.

But it was only when he moved to Bohs in 2012 that the player felt truly at home. The league positions that the club have finished in during the intervening period — 7th, 10th, 7th, 5th, 8th, 5th, 6th — indicate gradual rather than spectacular progress. This year, meanwhile, they are on course for their best season since Pender’s arrival at the club. Plenty of work has been undertaken off the pitch to make it happen, as well as on it. Having initially sensed disillusionment at Dalymount, the veteran says the team have reconnected with the fans and the community in recent years, a situation that has been aided by improving results and intelligent decision-making by people running the club (as outlined in detail here).

Some things just fit sometimes in life and in general,” Pender says of his move to Bohs. “When I went there in 2012, the club was in a bit of disarray and the fans had to save it from extinction. It was finding that relationship and that bond with fans. Where it’s brought us from to this day is just unbelievable and it just felt like a good fit. It’s unbelievable to be there even now.

“We’ve made absolutely massive progress. It’s a credit to all the lads behind the scenes, all the supporters that have put in the voluntary hours and everything they do for the club.

“It’s different compared to people who have big backers and big investors. These lads are going to work and doing stuff for the club in their own time, off their own backs, it’s unbelievable what they do.

“When I was first up in Dalymount in 2012, the fans had kind of fell out of love with the club, because they made massive investments and it didn’t work out really. There was people there taking money and the fans probably didn’t see a bond with them. Now, you can see the bond between the players and the fans from when the people took over, there’s a bond every year and a relationship between the local community and everything about it. It’s just a working-class club and it’s great the way it’s gone.”

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