Friendship will go out the window for Dundalk midfielder Ruaidhri Higgins when the Lilywhites face Coleraine in the Setanta Cup 1st round 1st leg at Oriel Park on Monday night.
The cultured midfielder, who is a Limavady native, is a regular spectator at The Showgrounds whenever he gets the chance to return home.
The 29-year-old is also friends with Coleraine manager Oran Kearney and is close to a number of the The Bannsiders players, most notably central midfielder Michael Hegarty, who, according to Higgins, has had the date pencilled in his diary for some time.
“I know quite a lot of them at Coleraine and Michael is a very good friend of mine so I’ve had a couple of texts already, warning me to make sure I’ve a good pair of shin pads on”, he laughed.
Coleraine are currently at the wrong end of the Danske Bank Premiership, hovering dangerously close to the bottom three, but Higgins believes it is a false position and one that Dundalk would be foolish to read too much into.
“Coleraine have players who can cause us problems,” he said.
“They’re fourth from bottom but if you look at their last 10 games in all competitions they have lost very few. They’ve struggled at times but they’ve made a few good signings and have a lot of their good players back from injury. I’ve seen them a lot and on their day they are a match for any team in the Irish League.”
One obvious advantage that the northern team should have over Dundalk is fitness. Kearney’s side have already played 28 league games to date whereas the Lilywhites have just five pre-season games under their belts.
“Fitness wise, at the minute, they’re in the middle of their season and they’ll be at their peak while we’re in pre-season”, commented Higgins.
“They’ve obviously got more games under their belts which might give them an advantage physically but results in recent years have usually gone the way of the League of Ireland teams.”
With the ties played over two legs, taking a lead to Coleraine will be important if Dundalk are to advance but Higgins said it would not be the be all and end all if they didn’t.
“We have to remember that it’s a 180 minute tie as opposed to 90 minutes in a normal league game. It would be nice to take an advantage to The Showgrounds but Coleraine beat Shamrock Rovers 1-0 in Tallaght last year. It was a bit of a shock result but Rovers went up there and won 2-0. The aim is to just get through the tie, it doesn’t matter where or how we do it.
Higgins admits he is a big fan of the competition. He was a part of the Derry City team that were beaten on penalty kicks by Crusaders in the 2012 final at the Oval in Belfast and he is hoping to go one better this season.
“I love the Setanta Cup and I’ve always enjoyed playing in it. At Derry we had great games with Linfield that brought massive crowds. I don’t know what the crowd will be like in Oriel Park on Monday but if you can get to the latter stages then it draws big crowds. It’s a great competition and it’d be a fantastic one to win.”
Dundalk face Coleraine for only the second time in their history when they meet at Oriel Park this Monday night.
The only previous encounter between the sides came on April 27, 1970 when Coleraine won 2-0 at The Showgrounds en route to retaining the Blaxnit Cup, a cross-border competition played between 1967 and 1974.
Current Lilywhites manager Stephen Kenny is looking forward to Monday’s tie and he said that it was unfortunate that clubs from both sides of the border don’t get to play each other on a more regular basis.
“It’s amazing to think that Coleraine is only two hours away and the two sides have only ever met once in a competitive game. It’s a terrible indictment of football on the island. We should all be playing each other more regularly”, he said.
Dundalk assistant manager Gerry Spain watched Coleraine’s 2-2 draw with Ballymena United on Saturday and Kenny himself is familiar with a number of their players.
“Eugene Ferry, the goalkeeper, was at Derry for a couple of years under me as back up to Ger Doherty. Ruairi Harkin is another young player who played for me a lot and then obviously there is Davy McDaid. They finished fourth last year and had a poor start to this season but they’ve picked it up recently.”
Dundalk’s only previous involvement in the Setanta Cup was in 2011 when they overcame Linfield, Glentoran and Cliftonville on the way to being beaten in the final by Shamrock Rovers.
Supporters remember those nights fondly but the campaign came at a cost with injuries and fixture congestion playing a major part in disrupting Dundalk’s season. After a bright start in the league, Ian Foster’s side finished seventh.
Looking ahead to the tie, Kenny said: “Our aim is to win the home game. That’s the focus at the minute. Away goals count double so we have to make sure defensively we are sound. In these games you can nearly be more attacking away from home because of that. At home it’s imperative to keep a clean sheet.”