Having gone through the hardship of losing their inspirational captain, Ryan McBride, at the beginning of last season Derry City deserve huge credit for finishing just three points off third place and securing European football.
Kenny Shiels has assembled a talented squad and implemented an attractive playing style while keeping that tenacity that Derry sides are so well known for.
With their return to the Brandywell imminent and the team seemingly improving year-on-year, these are positive times for the Candystripes. But the one asterisk beside their upward trajectory is the calibre of player they have lost over the winter, with both Aaron Barry and Barry McNamee heading to champions Cork City while Dean Jarvis has moved to Dundalk.
Having joined Derry City in 2015 after a spell with Tottenham Hotspur Aaron McEneff has been one of the standout players for the Candystripes ever since.
2017 was arguably the best year yet for the Derryman, however, netting nine league goals from midfield, plenty of those coming from his venomous right boot.
McEneff’s year was topped off when he was included in the PFAI Team of the Year alongside teammate Ger Doherty in goal.
One of the most technically gifted midfielders in the league, he will be crucial to Derry at the very least qualifying for Europe once again.
Key new arrival:
Conceding almost twice as many goals as Cork City and Dundalk respectively last term, Derry were always going to need to strengthen at the back and have done so brilliantly with the acquisition of Gavin Peers.
One of the most experienced players in the league having joined Sligo Rovers from Mansfield in 2006, Peers, still just 32, offers Derry solidity and leadership in the heart of defence.
2017 may be a year to forget for the Dubliner having lined out for a dire St. Pat’s side but having been around the league this long he will be expected to bounce back and become a key fixture for the Foylesiders this year.
One of Derry’s best players last term, this will again be a big year for Ireland under-21 international Ronan Curtis.
The left winger caused every side he faced last season problems with his pace and technical ability. Still just 22, 2018 could be a defining year in his career knowing another solid campaign would put him firmly in the shop window for other, larger clubs to come in for him.
Another player Shiels will have been delighted to have held on to as he is the ideal type of asset needed to implement the 61-year-old’s attacking philosophy.
One to watch:
While a relatively familiar name in League of Ireland circles, 23-year-old defender Armin Aganovic looks an exciting addition to the Candystripes’ backline.
Born in Sweden, Aganovic learnt his trade with a couple of Swedish lower league sides before being snapped up by Galway in 2016. From here he signed for third tier Norwegian outfit Raufoss IL last year, but in a sign of how talented he is both Cork City and Derry tried to sign him before he left, according to Shiels.
There’s now a huge amount of competition in Derry’s defence, with Scott Whiteside, Darren Cole, Peers and Aganovic all vying for a place in the team.
Another successful year for the Candystripes would be qualifying for Europe. While they have aspirations of unsettling Cork City and Dundalk’s dominance, they are likely a season or two away from mounting a genuine challenge for the title.
They are, however, heading in the right direction and the hope would be that with a refurbished Brandywell they can kick on now and put in place a foundation to claim silverware in years to come.
Pundit Arena prediction: 4th
On this week’s episode of The Mixer, we pay tribute to Liam Miller, preview the upcoming League of Ireland season and chat with Ronan Finn, Shane Keegan, Ollie Horgan and Liam Buckley.