WHEN Aaron McEneff made the decision to leave Tottenham Hotspur behind, return to his roots and sign for his hometown club, Derry City, in 2015, he already knew he wanted to win trophies.
Now, just over three years after put pen to paper, the 23-year-old will walk out to a wall of noise in the Brandywell knowing that, when the final ball is kicked, he could finally realise his dream of winning what he hopes will be the first of many trophies in his career.
Coaches of Don Bosco’s will look on proudly from the stands at the player who came to them as young child with a lot to learn but an appetite for success and an abundance of talent. That talent only progressed when he went to St Columb’s College, playing alongside the likes of current Dundalk superstar Michael Duffy and dominating on the national stage.
Northern Ireland call-ups came, with McEneff captaining the country on a number of occasions, before he made a declaration that he was switching allegiance to the Republic of Ireland. Martin O’Neill hasn’t come calling quite yet, but with former team mate Ronan Curtis involved for the senior side against Poland on Tuesday, there is a clear pathway for the creative midfielder that can go straight to the top.
For now, however, the only focus is on Sunday afternoon at 4pm. It’s been a rollercoaster of a season for Derry City and McEneff. 15 defeats in 30 league games has left a lot to be desired, but tomorrow that could all be forgotten as the Candy Stripes make their bid to overcome a Cobh Ramblers team lingering in eighth place in the First Division.
A 2-0 defeat to Bohemians two weeks’ ago is the last taste of competitive football the team have had, but McEneff said they have been preparing well and have one focus ahead of tomorrow.
“We had a good week of training and although we didn’t have a game in between, it’s given us a chance to get work done on the training pitch, which has been good,” the 23-year-old told the Derry News. “Obviously it builds up towards Sunday. Everybody is really look forward to it. I know our form has been a bit inconsistent, but at the end of the day it’s a cup final so you’re going to be excited about it.”
SOAK IT UP
As a player who grew up watching the generation of Kevin Deery, Ciaran Martyn and Ruaidhri Higgins, McEneff is inspired to bring a trophy back to the Brandywell that has already visited ten times – the most times of any team in the country. For the midfielder, it’s a case of only victory will do.
“It’s obviously going to be a big occasion because Derry haven’t played in the final sin a few years. Any sort of silverware is brilliant for the club and brilliant for the fans. It will be a good day, but hopefully we can do the business and win.
“Any player wants to play in the big games – I know I do. I want to win trophies as well, everybody wants to. Not many people get to win a trophy, a lot of people can go through their whole career without winning one, so if you can win a trophy and breed a winning mentality throughout yourself and throughout the team, then that’s a brilliant thing moving forward.”
With Cobh also losing half of their league games so far this season – 13 of 26 – and picking up just eight wins, the odds will be heavily stacked in favour of Kenny Shiels’ side. McEneff dismisses that idea though.
“It’s a cup final, and anything can happen,” he insisted. “All we can do is prepare right and do things right for ourselves, and hopefully the rest will take care of itself on the day.”
While Cobh overcame Wexford in a penalty shoot out and Longford Town as well as giant killings against Limerick and Dundalk, McEneff points to the Candy Stripes having a tough run of their own as a big motivation. They came from behind in the quarter-finals to beat Finn Harps in Ballybofey, with the 23-year-old scoring the equalising penalty, before a highly entertaining 7-3 win over Shelbourne and a hard-earned, determined win away to Sligo Rovers in the last four.
“I think we do deserve to be in the cup final. We’ve showed character to get here, but we know that on an occasion like this both teams are looking to win,” he stated. “It’s one of those games where it’s winner takes all, a one-off game where you don’t know what can happen. All we can do is prepare for ourselves and I’m sure that the result will take care of itself on the day if we can do that.”
McEneff could be forgiven for letting nerves play a part in the lead up to tomorrow, but for him, despite the occasion, it’s just another game.
“It’s just another game of football and, although it’s obviously a big game of football, I still go out there and try to do my job for the team – the same as I do in a league game or in a friendly.
“ I do what I have to do for the team and to help us to win a football match. That’s what we’re here to do. Of course I’ll be a bit more excited for this game because it is a final, but in terms of preparation everything has been the same and the next few days will be too.”
Tomorrow’s final will be the first match of a potentially season-defining fortnight for the Candy Stripes. They face Bohemians in the FAI Cup quarter-final on Wednesday before league games against Shamrock Rovers (home) and Dundalk (away).
“It’s a big two weeks for us really. Even the following week, if we win the quarter-final then we’ll be playing a semi-final,” explained McEneff. “It’s a busy period for us, but as a footballer that’s the kind of periods that you want to be in. You want to be playing games, and playing against the best teams, so I’m sure all the boys will be looking forward to it.”
So, is it the biggest game of his City career?
“It would definitely be up there anyway,” McEneff said. “The European matches are massive of course, the FAI Cup semi-finals against Dundalk two years ago were a couple of big games, but at the end of the day, a cup final is a cup final. If you win a trophy at the end of it then its brilliant.”
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