Ruaidhrí Higgins gets nowhere near enough credit for the job he is doing at Derry City. In 17 months, he has not only made the Candystripes a team capable of winning major honours but seems to have changed the entire mentality of the place. A club that believed qualification for Europe was success now thinks they should be winning silverware every season. He has brought unity to the club that was missing for several years.
Higgins has achieved this by assembling a squad with pride in playing for the famous red and white jersey. Who know what it means every time they put on the shirt.
It’s no secret that Derry is a wealthy club which can pay players handsomely. Players know this when entering negotiations and perhaps in the past bluffed the club into believing they were motivated by success rather than finance. I am confident many former Derry players signed for their bank balance rather than pride in the jersey.
But the same cannot be said for this group of Derry players. Higgins identified last year that change was needed in the dressing room. There were talented players there, but perhaps not enough of the right characters. Having a good dressing room is key to success and it’s rare to be successful without one.
I’ve been in changing rooms where there has been segregation, for instance the Cork City dressing room in 2019. We had come off a relatively successful season but there was a change in the dressing room in 2019. There was no real animosity in the group but neither was there a togetherness.
In the mornings, players would go separate ways, some lads in the gym, some in the players’ lounge, others hanging in the dressing room. It’s so important that players interact off the pitch because that's what develops relationships in a team.
We all know phones play an important role in a footballer's life, the same as everyone else these days. It’s rare to see players lift their head up from their phones these days, which exacerbates any lack of communication between teammates. During my second spell at Waterford, the then manager and now Derry assistant manager brought in a ban on phones during training. It made players interact more. Perhaps that rule has been imposed on the Derry players too. Even small things can make a difference to a dressing room.
One player that has stood out in recent performances for Derry is Patrick McEleney, a player Higgins was keen to bring back to the club. I was sceptical of the move. During my playing days, players always spoke about how exceptional a talent he was but I always believed he was overrated. Having watched a lot of him recently, I admit I was wrong. He has excelled with the Candystripes and being given the armband since Eoin Toal's departure for Bolton Wanderers seems to have improved his performances. He is a player that thrives with responsibility and is leading by example. I believe he is the best central midfielder in the league at this time.
Higgins recently spoke about making the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium a “horrible” place for visiting teams. Usually, supporters associate that phrase with a physical contest, that opposition teams are going to come away from games battered and bruised. This is not the case for Derry. In modern football, making a ground horrible means opposition players come off the field knowing that they have been outplayed and have spent 90 minutes chasing shadows.
Derry are a possession-based team and recently have made teams dread going to the Brandywell. They are on a five-game winning run at home.
The role the supporters are playing should not be underestimated. The Derry fans are once again getting behind their team because they see a group of players that appropriately represent the jersey. You could tell by the celebrations after their victory against Shamrock Rovers in the FAI Cup that there is a connection between players and supporters. That is significant too.
Players do moan about supporters and the way fans react to players’ mistakes. It has actually been a debate in some dressing rooms as to which club had the worst supporters. Players don’t enjoy performing in front of fans they know are only waiting for a mistake so that they can ridicule them. They want supporters that are going to stand by the team no matter what.
Of course, players do influence supporters' behaviour because if they aren’t working hard or representing the jersey in an appropriate manner, fans have every right to vent their frustrations. However, this group of Derry players are filling out the jersey proudly.