Derry City manager Declan Devine has put the League of Ireland on warning ahead of the new campaign by stating the league “hasn’t seen the best of him” and that the former Manchester City youngster could be the “best signing I’ve ever made.”
A string of niggling injuries combined with the competition for midfield places and off-field turmoil at Dundalk last season meant Patching was restricted to just seven senior appearances as the “Lilywhites” finished third, qualified for the Europa League group stages and lifted the FAI Cup last season. However, Devine has been impressed with what he’s saw of the Stockport native in pre-season.
A little bit like Patching, Derry City suffered an inconsistent 2020 season with the “Candystripes” finishing just one point clear of the relegation play-off position but Devine is confident the changes made in the Derry dressing room over the winter will ignite a turnaround in fortunes.
“It was difficult last season because I wasn’t able to bring the group together (due to Covid regulations), it was difficult to gel the group” said Devine who was speaking at a virtual Derry City press conference ahead of Saturday’s season opener away to Longford Town.
To compound the difficulties Devine faced in terms of creating a strong team spirit amid a global pandemic City then suffered a slow start to the 2020 season which Devine highlighted at today’s press conference.
“We played really well for eighty-plus minutes on the opening night in Oriel but lost the game to a late Dane Massey goal off a set-piece which was frustrating. Then we drew against fin Harps on an awful night when we didn’t play well but still could’ve won the game, we then beat Bohs which gave us a big lift but we lost to Waterford and then the lockdown came in and players went all over the place, you can do as many zoom calls as you like but we just looked like a group of men thrown together at times last season” revealed the Derry City manager.
Despite the clear negative impact Covid-19 restrictions played in terms of an apparent lack of cohesion forming inside the Derry ranks Devine admitted he takes the blame for the lack of togetherness in last season’s squad.
“It’s my fault we didn’t have that togetherness, we didn’t have enough physical presence around the pitch,” said Devine.
However, Derry fans will be delighted to hear their manager put on public record his belief that the balance and spirit within the Brandywell corridors is much more positive in the buildup to the 2021 campaign.
“There’s more of a home grown feel to the squad this season, more Irish based players or players that were at the club before in some capacity” said Devine who admitted the club were “going back to basics” this season and that he had built a squad containing players with a “point to prove.” again citing the likes of Will Patching and Will Fitzgerald.
Pushed on the clubs’ goals for the year ahead while Devine initially suggested he wasn’t setting long-terms goals this season he later admitted “the goal every season for this football club is to qualify for Europe” and that he was still upset over the “missed opportunity” of going out in round one of Europa League qualifying last term and that if his side had won their last two league games they may have managed to qualify again for this season.
One player Derry City will have to plan without at least for the short to medium term is Manchester City loanee Joe Hodge who has returned to his parent club for treatment after suffering a “small hairline fracture to the base of his back.” When asked if Devine was hopeful of seeing the Irish underage prospect in the Red & White of Derry City at all this season the response was an optimistic one.
“Joe Hodge will get the very best medical attention and be assessed weekly by the medical staff at Manchester City who we are in constant contact with. He receives a scan every 2 weeks to see where he is but for now he’s been advised to take a minimum of four weeks rest and I’d be very hopeful and confident he’ll play for us” remarked Devine.
Questioned on how he intends to achieve a better team unity this season given many of the same obstacles in terms of restrictions are still in place even in Northern Ireland Devine revealed he had deliberately arranged for four away games in pre-season in order to help the team come together.
“We put twelve players on one bus & twelve on another on long road trips and we are delighted with how they’ve come together.” Devine went on to state he feels there are different characteristics about this year’s group of players compared to twelve months ago.
“There’s good character among the players who share similar age profiles and are an honest group of good people from good families mostly from the North West and those from outside have been welcomed really well” said the forty-seven-year-old manager.
Turning attentions to Saturday and the trip to Longford Town Devine display a great deal of respect and admiration for both his opposite number Daire Doyle and Longford Town as a club in general.
“Daire Doyle will be a top manager in this league for many years to come, he’s got a good squad of young players in particular Aodh Dervin who I think will be a top top player and Aaron Bolger who’s come in from Cardiff and they’ve rebuilt as a club and spent years trying to get back into the Premier so we are under no illusions” remarked Devine.
When asked if there was a concern his Derry team may lack the firepower to compete at the top end Devine insisted that was an area he felt no concern and pointed to the likes of Will Patching and Will Fitzgerald once more as players who could chip in from deep while the Derry boss also pointed to some goal scoring defenders in his side such as Danny Lupano who has extended his loan deal from Hull City recently.
One player in particular Devine was eager to shine his light on was captain Eoin Toal who despite being just twenty-one-years-of-age has been handed the armband at the Brandywell for the forthcoming campaign.
Explaining his thinking behind the move Devine went on to say: “At twenty-one he’s (Eoin) has a real presence, a class act on & off pitch with a big future in game. I think this (the captaincy) will help take him on and grow. I’ve had some good captains here and I see a lot in Eoin and more to come. He’s a proper man, go in for a challenge with Eoin Toal and you’ll know all about it. When we win, he’s the happiest player in the dressing room and when we lose, he’s devested.”
Responding to such praise from his manager Toal backed up Devine’s claims that this year’s squad are coming together nicely ahead of the Longford game on Saturday.
“We’re gelling well together; it was hard getting use to each other last year due to isolation periods but we are more use to the regulations now and as a group we are tight and hoping for a good season” said the Derry City captain.
Given all the discussion of pressure and dealing with it given his new role as club captain Toal was also asked about the recent renaming of the Drogheda United Stadium to “Head In The Game Park” and how important the message of promoting mental health awareness within the LOI is.
“Mental health awareness is very important and it’s something every club should be getting involved in. It’s nice to hear your manager say such positive things about you and while being a captain brings more pressure on me, I’m looking forward to it. It’s an honor to be captain, I really want to push on and push the lads on and we’ll take every game as it comes” concluded Toal.
You can find more information on Derry City FC’s Wellness Programme here.