Season Preview 2024: Derry City

Head Coach: Ruaidhri Higgins 

Stadium: The Ryan McBride Brandywell 

Players in: Daniel Kelly (Dundalk), Pat Hoban (Dundalk) 

Players out: Brandon Kavanagh (St Patrick’s Athletic), Jamie McGonigle (Coleraine), Cian Kavanagh (St Patrick’s Athletic), Liam Mullan, Caoimhin Porter (Institute - both on loan), Jack Lemoignan (Harland & Wolff Welders FC), Daithi McCallion (Ballymena United - loan), Evan McLaughlin (Cork City) 

Re-signed: Ciaran Coll, Ciaron Harkin, Sadou Diallo key player: Pat Hoban 

Several brilliantly performing players over the last two seasons could have been selected, here. Among them, goalkeeper Brian Maher, captain Cameron McJannet, the ever-electrifying winger, Michael Duffy. 

However, Hoban is my pick to be Derry City’s key player because he is the exactly the sort of statement signing necessary if the Candystripes are to have a hope of denying Shamrock Rovers five-in-a-row. 

Hoban is Dundalk’s all-time top goal-scorer, 150 goals in 296 appearances.  Just the sort of cutting edge that has eluded, hauntingly of late, Derry.  

Derry City only lost seven league games in 2023. On nine occasions, they failed to score.  Remarkably, five of those defeats were by a one-nil scoreline. The 4-1 hammering in May by St. Patrick’s Athletic was an anomaly where Derry’s defence was weaker than their attack.  

What cost them most over the campaign were moments in the final third, when Derry edged possession but lacked penetration. The last pass, a clinical finish, correct decision-making going forwards, the absence of an elite level, ruthlessly reliable, scorer.  

To that end, Hoban’s arrival is a big box ticked. Here is the League of Ireland’s most-feared forward signing for a side that has talked of titles, competed gamely in recent races but ultimately been overblown by Rovers’ superior squad depth and league prioritisation.  Hoban could be the man who accelerates Derry’s ascent to first.  

Indeed, up front is where Derry’s most meaningful transfer market activities have been, with Hoban’s arrival offsetting the departures of Jamie McGonigle and Cian Kavanagh.  Two, dependable, pose-a-threat, strikers and in McGonigle, a man who’s deftly taken opening goal in the 2022 FAI Cup final helped end the club’s decade-long silverware drought.   

But make no mistake, Hoban’s prowess for snaffling up even relative half-chances is worth any two-for-one outlay.  

With Scotsman Danny Mullen starting to score before season’s end (three goals since joining in July), the new forward options will be openly embraced by manager, Ruaidhri Higgins.  

Who also, of course, still has Colm Whelan to return. The former UCD man, prolific at Belfield, showed his quality with two goals off the bench in his three league appearances last year.  

When back, Whelan will be like a new signing.  Recurring long-term ACL injuries have halted his progress but if Whelan gets fit and firing, then, with Hoban and the cautiously improving Mullen, Derry have the attacking armoury to outgun even Shamrock Rovers. one to watch: Ben Doherty 

An ever-present (42 appearances in all competitions), Ben Doherty has been a revelation for the Candystripes down their left-hand side. His 2023 numbers (five goals and eleven assists) don’t do his input justice.  

On his day, Doherty is the League of Ireland’s most well-rounded full-back. 

Originally from the area, Doherty re-signed from Larne last season, immediately striking up a fearsome partnership with Michael Duffy.  His athleticism allows him to create constant overlaps which utilise his devilish left foot and unselfish, eye for a pass that often saw him find teammates. 

Now with Hoban, a guaranteed starter, up top, Doherty’s assists could significantly increase, too.  As Derry’s creative midfielders, Patrick McEleney and Will Patching were besotted by niggles last year, Doherty’s reliability to be available is a huge asset as is his seemingly un-emptiable energy tank.  

Every game, there’ll be a moment where Doherty pops up somewhere you don’t expect.  Back covering the dependable centre-back, Mark Connolly from a pacy attacker, to make a crucial defensive tackle, roaming past halfway on a surging carry or scurrying, often unseen, into the box to shoot but more often than not, supply.  

The Northern Ireland man has proved a fine replacement for Danny Lafferty, re-energising the Derry side. With Ronan Boyce cementing the right-back position, Derry’s wide men are sure to bring the energy required to provide Hoban and co with decent service. 


How they did last season: 

League: Second 

Derry started last season superbly, winning the President’s Cup against Rovers before opening the Premier Division tilt off with three wins from their first four. That included a memorable McGonigle winner at Tallaght.  

The goals soon dried up, though, Derry scoring just twice over five games, a frustration that was capped by successive home defeats in early April to Drogheda United and Bohemians.  Despite, the caginess, though, they were only Derry’s first league losses. 

Back-to-back, two-goal-margin wins ended April successfully, but it was a case of one step forwards, two steps backwards for the Candystripes as Rovers avenged their earlier result with an authoritative victory at the Brandywell. 

Higgins rallied his team who responded with four wins on the bounce.  The June bank holiday proved a dark day, though, a 4-1 stuffing at Richmond Park sandwiched in-between scoreless stalemates to leave supporters sighing over strikers.

Back at Tallaght in late June, Rory Gaffney’s first-half strike won a game where Derry enjoyed more of the ball but relied on goalkeeper Brian Maher to keep in touch.

After a chaotic summer of European adventure, Derry rediscovered a scoring touch, spraying three past Drogheda and Dundalk, five past UCD in advance of a must-win home clash with Rovers. 

Only managing a draw, having peppered the goal, effectively killed their title charge off for good.  A tame 1-0 loss at Sligo the week after intensified the bad feeling. 

Derry did finish strongly with five successive clean sheets to close out the campaign.  Having only accrued eleven out of twenty-four available points against the Hoops and St Pats’, however, Higgins will know that they need a better points outcome from their head-to-heads with fellow title contenders. 


FAI Cup: Second round 

This was another source of disappointment for Derry who departed after only two games defending the Cup crown they wore as recently as 2022. 

Not that they didn’t give it a good go.  First Division, Athlone Town, were swept away 3-0 thanks to Will Patching’s penalty plus injury time strikes from Brandon Kavanagh and Duffy. 

Profligacy was becoming a problem, however, encapsulated by a 0-0 after extra time with St Pats’.  After a somewhat sleepy Sunday afternoon atmosphere, the penalty shootout went the way of the Inchicore visitors, Connolly cruelly missing the vital spot-kick.  

With Rovers eliminated early, Derry fans were left wondering what might have been as the bid for successive FAI Cups never really gathered steam. 


Europe: UEFA Europa Conference League Qualifying - Third Round 

Here, as we’re all too aware, League of Ireland fans have long suffered. Derry’s foray the year before had ended in a 4-0 aggregate defeat by Latvian side, Riga FC, a nightmarish debut result for the club’s first attempt at qualifying for the Conference League group stages. 

Last year, the first round threw up Faroe Islands opposition, HB Thorshavn. After a credible goalless first leg away, Derry returned to home turf for the second leg where they made history, becoming the first Candystripes side to win a European match since 2014.  Midfielder, Sadou Diallo’s first strike of the season, was very well-timed. 

Next up, came Finnish leaders, KuPS Kuopio with the first leg a ferocious Brandywell battle. Trailing at the break to Axei Videjeskog’s ice-cool penalty, Derry themselves kept calm to deservedly take a 2-1 advantage to Finland, Patching and Cian Kavanagh striking priceless goals home to cue jubilee. 

The second leg proved even more dramatic as a 3-3 draw saw the League of Ireland outfit advance 5-4 on aggregate.  Memories made? You bet. 

In a night Higgins hailed as special, Paul McMullan and Diallo had Derry twice ahead on the night.  KuPS roared back to lead 3-2 levelling the tie with extra time looming. 

Duffy, however, had other ideas, sending a scorcher into the bottom corner, a big-game player delivering a big-game moment.  Ecstasy for the Derry fans and rare pride for the League of Ireland on Europe’s continent. 

Ultimately, the next hurdle would prove too high to jump as Kazakhstan side Tobol, took a 1-0 first leg advantage to Ireland. With the Brandywell not meeting UEFA stadium criteria, Derry were forced to treat Tallaght as ‘home’ in the return leg.  

They soon settled in, acclimatising with a fine performance as Patching’s peerlessly slotted first-half penalty that night secured a 1-0 win of their own to force penalties.  


In a shootout that went all the way, more penalty woe came Derry’s way as Doherty and Maher saw their efforts saved.  

Tobol advanced, melting the exhilarating adrenaline of a European run into exhausted heartache as Derry digested their second shootout exit in a matter of days, having been dumped out of the FAI Cup by The Athletic in-between this tie’s legs. 

This was a nice abbreviation, though, from the usual gutsy but outclassed, League of Ireland, offerings, Derry will want to go one further again this summer to give their supporters even more Thursday night thrills. 


What to expect this season: 

A sustained title challenge, providing Hoban hits the ground running. So, no pressure then, Pat.  Six and seven points behind Rovers is a margin that can be closed.   

Derry enjoyed fighting on various fronts, but it arguably adversely impacted their league form, especially with the toll it took on key midfield maestros, McEleney and Patching. Diallo, Adam O’Reilly, and Cameron Dummigan commendably tenacious players must though improve their goal involvement to ease the burden on Derry’s top scorers.  

Encouragingly, McEleney has looked sharp in pre-season and how the influential skipper’s minutes are managed is key. With Daniel Kelly also arrived from Dundalk, creativity should only increase as Derry seek to overcome the shortcoming that saw them score less than Rovers and third-placed Pats’ last season. 

The youngsters will also hope to see more minutes. Derry now possesses a wealth of experience with Duffy, Hoban and the McEleney, Patrick and defender, Shane brothers set to be regulars.  

Yet, teenage, sixteen-year-old winger, Luke O’Donnell, who debuted in November 2023, hasn’t been loaned out, indicating that he is in Higgins’ thoughts going forward. 


Similarly, defender, Sam Todd will deputise in the backline should injuries, as they always do, occur, he impressed in a spring of substitute cameos last Autumn. 

Expect Derry to treat all competitions as seriously as each other.  Whether that admirable attitude proves their friend or foe in the title race, remains to be seen. 


First Game: Drogheda United (H)

Derry City start off at home this Friday, facing Drogheda United, one of the sides to inflict an inglorious 1-0 loss over them last year. After The Boynesiders, it’s a Saturday night trip to the Showgrounds to face Sligo Rovers.  

Then comes a huge double-header to commence March as Derry host Pats’ and travel to Tallaght in the first Monday-Friday scheduling of the season. That’s followed by the visit of newly promoted Waterford.  Derry can ill-afford to cede points to their title rivals yet will be wary of dropping points anywhere.  

Many potential Premier Division banana skins await, and all must be averted if Derry City are to end Rovers’ domestic dominance.