It’s been a long journey and almost ten years since Darren McCauley last pulled on a Derry City shirt, but the Top of the Hill native admitted it was ‘special’ to be back.
The 27-year-old put pen to paper on an 18-month contract at the Brandywell on Friday morning, five months on from when he opted to join Scottish Championship club Inverness Caledonian Thistle instead of the Candy Stripes after leaving Coleraine.
It was an opportunity that the former Celtic trainee felt he couldn’t turn down, and although he found game time lacking under previous City boss John Robertson, he said it was an experience that has helped him improve as a person and as a player as he gets to work back at the hometown club he left as a teenager.
“I’m very happy and I can’t wait to get started. It’s been a long process, but I really am delighted to be back at the club,” McCauley told the Derry News. “There’s a new buzz about the place and I certainly feel really motivated to do well for Derry City. I just can’t wait.
“I have no regrets about going over to Inverness.
“I couldn’t really settle in the five months I was there, but, in that time, I learnt a lot about myself, and I feel that I developed as a person and as a player.
“It’s time for me to kick on now as best as I can at Derry City.”
McCauley has spent most of his footballing career in local proximity, rising to prominence with Institute before rubber stamping himself as one of the best Irish League players of recent seasons with Coleraine, where he won an Irish Cup title alongside Ciaron Harkin in 2018. For the Gobnascale man, it’s nothing short of a dream to be back in the red and white and getting a proper crack at representing his boyhood club with pride.
“It’s definitely that wee bit more special for me,” he agreed. “I grew up as a Derry City fan. I came through the club’s academy and Decky (Devine) took me as a young player when I was 12 years of age, so I know him very well and I know the club very well, so I’m delighted.
“Playing for Derry City and having that hometown feel – you want to do well and you want to represent your area and your community in the best way you can.
“I had spells with Institute and Coleraine in the Irish League too, and those were great and made me the player that I am today, but now it’s time to play for Derry City, contribute as much as I can, and try to tackle the League of Ireland.”
Sitting in front of the local press, flanked by Devine and Sean Barrett and covered head-to-toe in City gear, it was clear to see that the winger was buzzing off the feeling of being home. And his anecdotes about the current atmosphere of the club certainly reflected that.
“There’s a big lift about the place. I think things could get a bit biblical because I think Decky has resurrected this club,” he joked. “It’s a bit of a Devine revolution flanked by his Holy Trinity – McCourt, McCann and Deery!
“But yeah, there’s a big buzz about the place and a new energy at the Brandywell. You can feel that the place is rocking again, and I can’t wait to be a part of it.
“The team have done great. They’ve probably over-achieved in many people’s eyes because there was so much uncertainty whenever last season ended. They’ve done really well to be sitting fourth in the table and pushing for Europe, it’s a good position and a healthy position.
“Hopefully I can help contribute to pushing for that European place by putting in good performances and scoring goals for Derry City.”
McCauley won’t be eligible to play any competitive games for the Candy Stripes until July 1, with the away trip to Bohemians on that date a possible chance for his debut back at the club. The 27-year-old isn’t bothered about the wait in between, however, insisting it will work to his benefit.
“It gives me time to adjust to the training and get to know the boys and get up to speed because I wasn’t playing much at Inverness,” he explained. “I feel that I’ve kept myself in good shape over the off-season, I’ve had a wee break and I’m raring to go.”
With McCauley’s Irish Cup success with Coleraine, challenging until the final day for the league title, and scoring in Europe, he believes that he can use that experience to help himself and his new team mates.
“I’ve played in big games and I’ve seen first-hand how a young team can progress and develop with Coleraine,” stated the former TOTHC player. “I know what it takes, I know the togetherness that you have to have to be successful, and how much work you have to put in.
“I’m coming into an age now where I have had these experiences – I’ve been up and I’ve been down. Now, I’m ready to hit my top form.”
Three weeks of hard work await McCauley, and he insisted that he won’t be expecting anything to be handed to him once he does become eligible to play.
“For any new player coming in, myself included, you have absolutely no god-given right to start in the team straight away,” he said. “It takes work-rate, it takes good performances and hopefully I’ll be doing that.
“I think coming into the squad in July will give Declan a few selection headaches and I suppose that’s what you want in any team.”
After losing out on his man at the start of the year, City manager Declan Devine admitted he was ‘over the moon’ to get another local lad in the door, and one that he and his management team wanted from the first moment they returned to the club – and one they want to ‘build the team around’.
“We’ve signed not only a fantastic player, but a fantastic person. He’s a man who holds the club close, he’s been here before and he knows what the club is about and the principles,” explained Devine. “We’re over the moon to bring him here but there’s no pressure on Darren McCauley to do well because he puts enough pressure on himself.
“He’s a player who was on the top of our list when we set out our recruitment plan in November and we’re delighted to have him now not only for the remainder of this season, but for next season as well. He’s a player that we want to build the team and club around.
He continued: “We wouldn't be in a position to bring a Darren McCauley to this club, if it wasn't for the support that we have had this season. The place is buzzing, the place is rocking and it's a brilliant place to be on a Friday night, whenever those stands are full.
“But it's so important now for us to try and push that on to another level and hopefully this gets us new supporters in and hopefully it helps us bring supporters in that haven't been at the Brandywell for a while, back again, because we do want to be successful.
“The two top clubs in Ireland at this moment in time are Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers, they have built real good foundations and we are trying to do the same.
“Darren is a local lad, who comes in with a wealth of experience that will help our young players, so we are absolutely buzzing to get him here, but we also know that there's a lot of work ahead,” he concluded.
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