BIG GAMES KEEP COMING … Tonight’s game against Riga FC will be the biggest game of Brian Maher’s Derry City career so far. (Photo: Stephen McCarthy, Sportsfile)
For a 10-year-old Brian Maher, it seems like only yesterday that he watched from the stands at Tallaght as Shamrock Rovers were humbled by Rubin Kazan. But tonight, he will be in the firing line as Derry City look to create more European history against Riga FC.
Back in 2011, Maher sat with friends as Michael O’Neill’s champions fell short against their Russian opponents in what was an historic occasion for Irish football. Rovers, having become the first League of Ireland side to qualify for the Europa League Group stages, were drawn against Rubin Kazan, PAOK and Tottenham Hotspur. Rovers ultimately finished bottom of that group, but an Irish side had finally made it beyond the qualifying stages, which was huge for the game in Ireland.
Fast forward 11 years, and Dundalk have followed suit, qualifying twice under Stephen Kenny. It certainly doesn’t happen every year, but Irish sides are no longer just showing up for one round and going home.
They are there to win, and for Maher, entering his first European tie in senior football tonight, the legacy of teams before them can inspire Derry City to follow suit in this year’s campaign.
“It’s a week we’ve all been looking forward to, especially since the draw,” he said. “We’ve had to just focus on the league but now we can focus on the European game against Riga on Thursday. We spoke about it once when the draw came out but the games we had in the league were too big so we had to focus on them. We got two good results so we can park the league off for a few weeks and focus on this game now.
GREAT FEELING … Derry City are back to winning ways recently with victories over UCD and Bohemians. (Photo: Sam Barnes, Sportsfile)
“When I was really getting into the league as a young players, I would have seen Dundalk’s runs. Being a Dublin lad, I went over to watch Rovers play in the Europa League against teams like Ruben Kazan. If there was football on the doorstep I was going to watch it. I saw those runs and it makes you want to go on one of them yourself.”
The Europa League Qualifier against Riga comes just when Derry City are finding their feet again after a barren run of results over June. Recent victories over UCD and Bohemians could not have come at a better time for Maher and his team mates.
“Last Friday was a really pleasing win as well in the way everybody stuck at it,” he agreed.
“It was probably a different kind of performance towards the end, we showed a different side of us that we need in this league. There was no doubt we had it and I was good to see, especially with how difficult the conditions were as well and the momentum they had. I think we were full value for the win at the end as well.
“The gaffer said as well but a lot of games we didn’t win were games we should have won and games we played well in, but we just didn’t get the rub of the green. There was no panicking because we knew the results would come back.”
While City may be slight underdogs going into this two-legged tie against Riga, they certainly believe in their ability to progress to the next qualifying round of the Conference League. And having watched Rovers and Dundalk hit those heights in European competition, Maher sees no reason why Derry City, or any Irish side, should be expected to roll over.
“It’s a really exciting competition but it’s not just a case of ‘we got into Europe, it’s going to be great’,” he said.
“We want to go far in it and we want to progress through rounds. Preparation has started and it’s full focus and we want to win on Thursday to put us into a good position for next week.
“The staff will have it all ready for us, and we’ll get to see their strengths and weaknesses, where we need to be wary of them and where we can get at them. That preparation has already started. They are a good side and we’ll give them the respect they deserve but we definitely aren’t afraid of them and don’t fear them.”
BIG TEST … Tonight’s opponents Riga FC won seven games in succession before dropping points in their last two games.
Like his manager, Maher is hoping that the Derry City supporters can create an intimidating atmosphere to help the players over the line in what is sure to be another memorable night at the Brandywell.
“We’re going to have a great crowd behind us and hopefully they can give us that extra percent to try and win the game and then we’ll have to go over there and try and do the same,” he added. “I don’t think it particularly matters what order it’s in because we have to do the job in both legs. It’s not just about doing the job in the home leg, you still have to go over there and do whatever it takes to get through.”
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