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Monday 30 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Ryan Byrne/INPHO Derry City manager Ruaidhrí Higgins and Patrick McEleney celebrate with the FAI Cup
# Happy Days
'To see him lift the trophy made the hair stand up on the back of my neck'
Ruaidhrí Higgins paid tribute to Patrick McEleney after he captained Derry City to an FAI Cup final triumph.

AT TIMES, the post-match press conference felt a bit like an Oscars acceptance speech where so many people were thanked, and rightly so.

Days like Sunday have not been coming around too often for Derry City of late.

A decade has passed since their last FAI Cup win in 2012.

A league triumph has remained elusive for even longer — 1997 was the first and only time they emulated the Premier Division champions of 1989, the year they famously became the first (and still only) Irish side to win a domestic treble.

Yet one of the big reasons for Ruaidhrí Higgins’ recent success has been his ability to assemble a squad with a core group of individuals who had already acquired a taste for silverware elsewhere.

The manager has only just completed his first full season as Derry manager, having taken over in April last year, but already, he has built a formidable team.

The likes of Michael Duffy, Patrick McEleney and Cameron Dummigan know what it takes to get teams over the line in big games.

The Derry skipper, McEleney, came in for particular praise from his manager.

Along with his brother Shane, he was the only player on the pitch yesterday who also featured in the 3-2 extra-time win over St Pat’s in the 2012 final.

“Patrick McEleney has just played his seventh cup final and won four. People have spoken about his injury record and stuff like that, but he has played the guts of 30 games for us this year.

“From the summer on, I think he has been one of the outstanding players in the league. A lad from Shantallow who was a season ticket holder for Derry for years, travelled up and down the country, and that’s the truth, he travelled everywhere — to see him lift the trophy made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”

Higgins said he was reluctant to single out individuals but then proceeded to cite several as crucial to the success.

Two-goal hero Cameron McJannet?

“A lad from Milton Keynes who came over here a few years ago to get his career going, he has fallen in love with the place and our supporters have fallen in love with him. And for me, he is one of the most underrated players in the country without a shadow of a doubt.”

Ryan Graydon, who looked lively throughout and did brilliantly to produce the assist with a fine touch and cross for the all-important opening goal?

“Ryan Graydon has played in the First Division for most of his career and you can see when he gets space to run into, the damage he can do.”

Ireland U21 goalkeeper Brian Maher?

“You play with 11 outfielders when you have got Brian. He is the best in this country that I have ever seen with the ball at his feet, there is no doubt about that. He has grown as the year has gone on. The experience that he has gained from the Ireland U21s has stood to him, and he is a continental-style goalkeeper and we are glad to have him.”

Former Arsenal youngster Jordan McEneff, who was introduced in the 90th minute yet still had time to win and score a penalty?

“I coached Jordan when he was 14 or 15. There is no ceiling on what he has got to offer. We wanted Jordan to come in, stay fit, and train as much as he could because he has had a real problem over the last number of years staying fit.

“So he came in and he has hardly missed a session, you can see week on week how he is developing and how he is improving, and I am so excited for Jordan. He has got a massive future in the game if he gets the wee bit of luck that he badly needs.”

Derry’s billionaire chairman Philip O’Doherty, whose arrival at the club and subsequent funding has paved the way for their major improvement of late?

“I’ve never seen the man emotional in my life, and he showed a bit of emotion out there, which is great to see. Sean Barrett as well, two hardened businessmen who are really proud of their football club.”

And not forgetting popular assistant coach Alan Reynolds?

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“One of the shrewdest football people in the country. He’s from Waterford, he’s got a wife and kids in Waterford, and the sacrifices he’s made for me, he deserves so much credit. You’re only as good as the people around you and he’s been absolutely fantastic.

“So we’ll enjoy a few days together, a few pints, and listen to live music.”

There was also a special guest appearance in the crowd from current Ireland international and former Derry City player James McClean.

“Yeah, he was up where we were lifting the trophy with his Derry jersey on. Someone says the camera went on him during the game.”

Higgins then added jokingly: “And I heard he was signing a three-year deal with us last week as well. I’m looking forward to him joining the club in January!”

The Derry boss also took time to reflect on people who were special to the club but are sadly no longer alive and consequently could not witness the landmark day.

“I said it after the semi-final, Mark Farren and Ryan McBride, and all those people who have a history with the club who have left us too young. I couldn’t get them out of my head all week and this morning. I’m sure they’ll be looking down on us.”

And the key question now, of course, is whether this immensely talented group of players can build on their success.

It was not until 2019 that Stephen Bradley won his first major trophy, the FAI Cup, as Shamrock Rovers manager. 

The Hoops then proceeded to win three successive league titles.

Can Derry also ending a long drought have a similar effect and serve as a springboard for even greater days ahead?

“We can’t promise anything. What we can promise is we will do our very, very best. I’m giving you a boring answer but Shamrock Rovers are an exceptional team, exceptional in what they have done over the last few years and they deserve huge credit. But it’s up to ourselves, St Pat’s, Dundalk, Shelbourne, Sligo, Bohs, all these clubs, to try and close the gap. We are working extremely hard, but there is a bit of work to do to get to that level.”

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