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Falling back in love with football in Ireland after 14 years at Man City

Derry City’s Will Patching finally feels at home again.

Derry City's Will Patching celebrates a goal.
Derry City's Will Patching celebrates a goal.
Image: Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

THINGS ARE going well for Will Patching.

As they prepare to host Shelbourne tonight, Derry City are top of the table with nine games played, six points ahead of reigning champions Shamrock Rovers.

Patching has been instrumental to his side’s successful start — with five goals including one in last Saturday’s 2-1 win over Finn Harps, he is currently the Premier Division’s joint-top scorer alongside Aidan Keena of Sligo.

The 23-year-old midfielder knows it cannot always be like this, having enjoyed his fair share of setbacks in the game up to this point.

He joined Derry in the off-season having spent the first half of last season on loan there from Dundalk, while other notable recent recruits including Michael Duffy, Patrick McEleney, Brian Maher, Shane McEleney and Matty Smith are helping elevate Ruaidhrí Higgins’ side to great heights.

“I’m really enjoying my football at the minute,” he tells The42. “Ruaidhrí put me in a position where I can get close enough to the net to score goals. Defensively as well, he’s got me doing what he wants me to do.

“He kind of gives me that freedom to get forward and try to get shots off and stuff. So it’s probably the most I’ve enjoyed my football in a long time.

“I had it in my head before the season — try to reach double figures with goals. And there are things you do as a midfielder, you can kind of say you had a successful season, individually that is.

“Last season, I scored six with Derry and then didn’t score in the league for the second half of the season [after returning to Dundalk]. So I want to try to keep that consistency up, try to score and assist and just help the team as much as I can.”

Patching hails from Stockport in England. His father “can’t kick a ball to save his life,” though his two brothers played without getting to a professional level.

At age six, he joined Manchester City. Did he feel intimidated finding himself at a big Premier League club at such a young age?

“I suppose it’s a lot different when you’re that young. You’re just buzzing to play the game really. You don’t think about it. The game changes when you get older. It’s all about the winning mentality and the three points and leads, whereas when you’re that young, you just enjoy the game, you don’t have any worries. Going in at six, going to play the club that I supported and my dad supported, it was just pure enjoyment really.”

Kevin Keegan was manager when Patching joined in 2004. They finished that campaign in 16th position, just eight points above the relegation zone.

To suggest City have changed since then would be putting it mildly — the superclub of today are virtually unrecognisable from the team of that era.

manchester-city-youth-v-borussia-monchengladbach-youth-uefa-youth-league-group-d-city-academy-stadium-will-patching-manchester-city Patching pictured during his younger days at Man City. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Patching had a closer view than most of their transformation from an average and mainly top-flight team into one of the richest and most successful clubs in the world.

“When I was young, until about I was about 14-15, we were at Platt Lane [Sports Complex], which is where we used to train. We actually played at Carrington, but Platt Lane training ground was only small and had two grass pitches. When we moved over to the CFA [City Football Academy], it was like a whole new world. Unlimited pitches and unlimited hotel rooms in the academy. It was just a massive change. Obviously, it’s paid off for the club and look where they’re at now. They’re doing really well.

“[The current owners] invested all their money into the academy, the training ground and stuff like that. So when they came in, the year after that would have been where everyone moved over and went to CFA.”

He continues: “All that was top class and I had a great time at City, I enjoyed it, I made some great friends, friends for life. I worked with some of the best players in the world. We had the odd training session [with the first team]. Pep [Guardiola] would call us over.

“It was tough times there as well, probably some of the toughest times of my footballing career. Just going through a few rough patches on the pitch and stuff like that. But it’s part and parcel of the game. There are a lot of ups and downs.”

So in 14 years at the club, did Patching ever feel close to making a first-team breakthrough?

“I wouldn’t say I felt close. There’d be the odd training session where I did train with them. A few of the boys would move over into their dressing room.

“If you do that, you feel a bit closer, whereas I was really just with the 23s and we’d do the odd training session, but it was good.”

Patching does not hesitate when asked to name the best footballer he encountered during his time with the club.

“Looking at it now, it’s got to be Phil Foden, he was just an absolute genius on the ball and off the ball as well, his work rate is amazing. He has always been like that. From when I was younger, I’d been with Phil in the academy since I was six and he was five. I played a lot of games with him and he was the only the year below me, so we trained together a lot and he’s a top lad as well. He’s not just a good footballer. 

“You could see from a very young age that there was just something different about him. He went through a bit of a growth [spurt], he was a bit smaller than everyone else and still is now, but it doesn’t really matter. Even the coaches, everyone knew from the early days that he had a chance of playing at the level he’s at now.”

soccer-football-champions-league-quarter-final-first-leg-manchester-city-v-atletico-madrid-etihad-stadium-manchester-britain-april-5-2022-manchester-citys-phil-foden-in-action-with-atl Patching cites Phil Foden (above) as the best footballer he played with at Man City. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Patching also played regularly at underage level for England around this period, travelling to Chile for the U17 World Cup in 2015, where his teammates included current Liverpool star Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Straight after turning 17, he signed a professional contract with City but ultimately could not make the next step into the first team.

After being released in 2018, Patching signed a two-year deal with Notts County.

“When we spoke to a couple of people at Man City they were surprised Will had been released,” then-manager Kevin Nolan told the Nottingham Post at the time, after signing Patching and Tom Crawford from Chester.

“They thought he would be given another year and he also had a few offers to go to higher clubs as did Tom Crawford.

“But it was quite funny because Tom’s agent is the same as Will’s.

“He thought Notts could be the right fit for Will because it’s men’s football.

“I am really looking forward to working with him.”

The move, however, did not go as planned. Notts County were struggling badly. A 23rd-place finish saw them relegated from League Two.

Patching, who had made just 10 appearances that season, left the club by mutual consent despite having another year left on his contract.

At the time, it looked as if the gifted youngster might be heading towards footballing oblivion.

“There have been times towards the end of my career at Man City and my year at Notts County where I didn’t enjoy it at all,” he says. “When we mutually agreed to end my contract at Notts County after the first year, I didn’t join another club for three or four months before I went to Dundalk. 

“It was tough mentally and I really wasn’t enjoying my football at Notts County. It was kind of: ‘Where do I go from here?’ Even my first year at Dundalk wasn’t enjoyable. I obviously went to Derry for six months last year and just fell back in love with the game and enjoyed every minute of it.

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“When Ruaidhrí came in last year, we started to get wins under our belt and started to play better football and he kind of just gave me the freedom and he believes in me a lot. He’s been a big part in me falling back in love with the game.”

So does Patching believe going straight from the academy of a Premier League club to a team struggling in the English lower leagues can be ill-advised, particularly for a creative player such as himself who thrives on technical, possession-based football?

“100%. I couldn’t really agree more with that. It is a different kind of ball game to football over here [in Ireland]. I’m not talking about a different standard or is it a higher level. It just doesn’t really suit my style of play, whereas I think the team I’m in now does.

“It lets my qualities come through, whereas playing at Notts County, I couldn’t really shine or show my qualities. I didn’t really get the chance to but at the same time, the team and the league just didn’t really suit me.”

ruaidhri-higgins Patching says Derry City boss Ruaidhrí Higgins was key to his rejuvenation. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Others in a similar position often become so disillusioned that they quit football entirely.

“It’s so common as well, you wouldn’t realise how much it actually happens. People coming from Premier League academy teams where it is all about tactics and technical ability and stuff like that, to dropping down the leagues, battling every weekend for three points, it’s a completely different ball game.

“Some people adapt really well to it and pick it up straight away whereas it doesn’t suit a lot of people and they just end up falling out of love with the game. I think I’ve been one of the lucky ones to stay in the game and rebuild my love for it, and that’s where I am now.

“I had not had a club for a few months. I’d been on a few trials. Little sniffs here and there. My agent at the time mentioned Dundalk and they were flying. They’d won five of the last six leagues and they had a lot of good players. It was a good club when I first joined. It wasn’t that hard of a decision to make, one because it was a club doing really well and then another part of it was I wanted to get back into the game.”

And in his most difficult period, did Patching ever fear he might have to hang up his boots prematurely?

“Not necessarily entirely quit. In the back of my head, I was always going to carry on, but it was just not knowing what level I was going to carry on at.

“Football is all I’ve been doing since I was young. I joined City when I was six. If I quit, it was like: ‘God knows what I would do because I don’t know myself.’”

Declan Devine initially brought him on loan to Derry, but some disappointing results led to his departure early on last season. It was only after Higgins’ arrival that club and player alike began to really thrive.

“Ruaidhrí came in and his intentions were the exact same [as Declan’s], to give me the freedom and just put his belief in me. Thankfully, I found a manager that did believe in me and let me just play my game and fit into the team the way he wanted to. It’s working out well so far.”

But as Patching’s trajectory illustrates, life as a footballer can be both short and unpredictable. So it’s no surprise that when asked about his future in the sport, the Derry star points out the futility of looking too far ahead.

“I’ve not really got an answer myself [about what happens next]. I don’t really like to think about it too much just because I know how cutthroat and ruthless the game is, things can change within the blink of an eye in football.”

Asked to further reflect on the highs and lows he has experienced, Patching adds: “I wouldn’t say I never took [football] as seriously as I should have. I was just not enjoying it as much as I am now. The place I’m in now, I’m really enjoying it. I’ve got a great group of lads as teammates, the staff are great, the club is great and the fans, the city, everything about it at the minute is going well. I’m really enjoying it and hopefully, I can just keep it going.

“For people looking in from the outside, it probably looks a lot different [when it's not going well] whereas they don’t really know what’s going on. Confidence is one of the main things in football. When you’re flying and doing really well, confidence is through the roof and it kind of gives you that momentum. It lets you keep on going and performing well, so I think that is a big thing.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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