Derry City manager Ruaidhrí Higgins with goalkeeper Brian Maher after Friday's game ends in a draw. Ben Brady/INPHO

Premature to write off Derry's title hopes amid the strangest of seasons

Ruaidhrí Higgins’ men suffered a setback on Friday as they were held by Shelbourne.

ON THE FACE of it, Derry City’s recent form does not suggest they are title-winners-in-waiting.

Ruaidhrí Higgins’ men’s frustrating 1-1 draw with Shelbourne, in which the manager was not at all happy with the officiating, made it just one win in their last seven fixtures.

However, they still gained ground on table toppers Shamrock Rovers, who were unexpectedly beaten in Dundalk on Friday.

Nevertheless, it also meant St Patrick’s Athletic displaced Derry in second.

The Saints have arguably been the Premier Division’s most impressive team in recent weeks and are now just four points adrift of the Hoops and two ahead of Derry.

Their fortunes have improved significantly since Jon Daly took over from Tim Clancy as manager — Friday’s emphatic 7-0 victory over UCD was their eighth win from 11 fixtures under the former Ireland U21 international, who inherited a side on the back of a three-match losing run.

Shamrock Rovers, of course, still hold the advantage and remain strong favourites to emulate their 1980s counterparts and win a fourth successive title.

And while the Candystripes’ recent 1-0 loss against the Hoops led some observers to suspect the title race was all but over, those declarations seem a little premature in what has been a particularly unusual season.

Aside from rock-bottom UCD, who have picked up just nine points all season, it genuinely does feel like every team is capable of picking up points off each other on a given day, as eighth-place Drogheda’s recent shock win over Pat’s highlighted.

“I’ve been in the league since summer 2004, 19 years ago was when I first started in the league and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it where it’s so unpredictable, so competitive,” Higgins said on Friday.

“It’s a relentless league and if you come off your standards whatsoever, you get done. We see tonight Sligo have been on a rough patch and of course, they win tonight and they’ve us next week. You can see that they went and put away Bohs, Dundalk beat Rovers, it’s a really unpredictable league at the moment.

“Pat’s are probably the in-form team at the minute and they’re putting points on the board but we know that we’re more than capable of stringing a run of wins together and staying in contention and seeing where it takes us.”

The top-four sides in the table all have just 12 games remaining this season, so whoever does manage to put a sustained run of wins together will likely prevail.

There is also the added complication of European football, with Rovers expected to go deepest on that front as they did last year, as even an exit from the Champions League qualifiers will see them drop down to the Europa League or the Conference League whereas it’s sudden death for the other Irish teams.

Will Patching, Patrick McEleney, Ryan Graydon, Paul McMullan, Michael Duffy and Colm Whelan were among the players conspicuous by their absence on Friday, as Derry only sporadically posed a significant threat in the final third.

Nevertheless, the outlook is set to be more promising in the weeks to come. McMullan among others is expected to return imminently.

And despite possessing one of the strongest squads in the Premier Division, Higgins admits his side have struggled to cope with the intense nature of the Irish football calendar owing to a shortage of bodies at times — they couldn’t even fill their bench at Tolka Park, with just seven players held in reserve rather than usual nine.

“We’ll have a few players back next week for the Sligo game, which is great and it’s timely,” he told reporters. “We’re not in a disastrous position by any stretch. We’re six points behind and we’ve loads of players to re-introduce to the squad. And there’s loads to play for, loads of games left.”

Perhaps significantly, a number of the Candystripes’ biggest games in the run-in — including against Rovers and Pat’s on the final day — are at home.

They will also surely be expecting six points from their remaining two matches with favourites for relegation UCD.

In addition to their returning stars, one player who will likely play a crucial role in their title tilt is Ben Doherty.

The 26-year-old midfielder returned to Derry at the beginning of 2023, five years after departing his hometown club, having impressed in the interim amid spells at Glenavon and Larne.

He was arguably the best player on the pitch on Friday, scoring a superb equaliser to earn his side a point amid an impressive all-round display.

“Ben has given us a wee piece of magic that we needed,” Higgins said. “People were maybe questioning [the signing] because they remember him as 19, 20-year-old at Derry, wee chubby face, but he’s a man now. He’s an absolute athlete. A model professional and a revelation since he came to the club.”

Whether Derry as a team can also come of age in the coming months remains to be seen, but the potential is certainly there for the Candystripes to defy the odds.

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