"We trust what we do" - Stephen Bradley backs Rovers ahead of biggest test
Forget Liverpool v Man United, this is the tie of the weekend.
After what has been a challenging start to the season for this four-in-a-row chasing Shamrock Rovers side, manager Stephen Bradley is gearing up for what will be perhaps the biggest threat to his side's domestic dominance over the past four seasons.
That threat comes in the form of Ruaidhrí Higgins' reimagined Derry City, who developed over the course of last season from a solid mid-table team into viable league title contenders and eventual FAI Cup Champions.
With the Hoops missing their three first choice centre halves in the form of Daniel Cleary, Lee Grace and captain Roberto Lopes, a Derry City side - who have already bested Rovers this season in the President's Cup - will head to the capital with hopes of dismantling the Champions imperious home form, an unbeaten record which stretches back to mid-2021.
Speaking at the Rovers' training facilities ahead of the titanic clash, Bradley appeared to relish the test which the Candystripes would bring, with the 38-year-old remarking "This is the joys of the season, challenges are thrown up to you, and we've got a challenge tomorrow".
When it was put to the Rovers manager as to whether or not last season's cup triumph for Derry could be a catalyst in terms of providing Higgins' side with the necessary belief required to challenge Rovers' throne, Bradley was bullish in his response; "I really don't know and don't care. It's nothing got to do with me. We focus on what we do here, as a club, as a team, as a group, that's all we've ever focused on".
In discussing his side's slow start to the season, a two game run which has seen consecutive 1-1 draws against both Sligo Rovers and Drogheda United, Bradley spoke of the need for Rovers to hold their nerve and back the systems and processes which have seen them soar to the previously unfathomable heights of European group stage competition.
"We trust what we do, we trust the process and let's see where that takes us. We know what we have to do every day and every week, we've shown that for the last three or four years. Let's see where that takes us at the end of the year", proclaimed the former Arsenal youth player.
Despite the disappointing results from the opening rounds, in which two late concessions hamstrung Stephen Bradley's side, the Rovers' boss feels that context needs to be provided when trying to assess the performances of his squad, saying that "We're three minutes away from six points. It hasn't happened so everyone reacts to results, and I get it, but we can't do that. We haven't done that and it's about continuing to build".
The biggest hurdle facing the charismatic Bradley on Friday night is the aforementioned absence of his key central defenders. Wedded to the back three system, the base from which Rovers build their progressive style of play, the former Ireland underage midfielder stated his intentions to stick with what his squad knows best despite the lack of defensive options at his disposal.
"Sticking to a back three? Yeah. We're so familiar with it. We do change it in games, but all of our principles come off the back three. We're very comfortable with it", said the three-time league winning manager.
Attempting the plug the defensive holes his side must endure on Friday evening, Bradley confirmed that experienced midfielder Gary O'Neill would be repositioned into a make-shift back three, as Rovers look to contain a threatening Derry City attack which includes the likes of Patrick McEleney, Oli O'Neill and Jamie McGonigle.
Eulogising his midfielder as "the best six in the country", the Rovers boss said that "He's clever at reading the game, Gary. It's one of his strengths. Centre half suits him... We see Gary as a future captain and a real leader for us".
Whilst Rovers are managing to adapt to the precarious defensive situation they find themselves in, Bradley feels that a number of his side's dismissals were unjust, particularly the sending off of Daniel Cleary, who received a dubious first yellow for time wasting to which Bradley said "When you watch the incident back it's actually Richie and myself who are doing it".
Attributing the contentious decisions to increased scrutiny imposed upon officials behind the scenes, Bradley said that "That's not football, that's not how it works. I think they (referees) have got to be given freedom within how they manage the game and right now it doesn't feel like they have that, from speaking to some of them privately".
The winless start to the campaign has not subdued the fervent anticipation around the champions' first home fixture since lifting the league title last October. With over 7,000 tickets sold ahead of Friday evening's game, Bradley says that "the crowds have helped us... and we've not been there yet this season, so I'm looking forward to it!"
With so many variables ahead of the game, whether it be over the stopgap Rovers backline or Derry's ability to overcome their Tallaght hoodoo, it looks set to be a thrilling encounter and one which can act as a showpiece in highlighting just how far the standard of League of Ireland football has come.
Don't worry about Super Sunday, the only football you need to watch this weekend kicks off at 8pm, Friday night, under the bright lights of Tallaght Stadium.
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