AFTER THREE YEARS of worry and uncertainty, Mark Farren is finally getting back to where he wants to be — out on the football pitch, wearing red and white, scoring goals.
Farren will lead the line for Derry City when Dundalk visit the Brandywell this evening, hoping to make amends for their 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Shamrock Rovers last weekend.
It’s a safe bet that Lilywhites manager Sean McCaffrey will have a quiet word with his back four ahead of kick-off, a gentle reminder that they’ll need to keep a close eye on a man who is looking fitter and sharper with each passing game.
Looking every bit like a striker who has 110 goals in a proud and loyal Derry City career, and now sits just two short of Liam Coyle’s club record.
On Monday, Farren was Shamrock Rovers’s tormentor-in-chief as Derry came away from Tallaght with a 3-0 win in the first leg of their Setanta Sports Cup semi-final. But it wasn’t all that long ago that he was battling a benign brain tumour and feared he might never lace up a pair of football boots again.
The story of Farren’s recovery is a remarkable one. After a successful seven-hour operation in Liverpool last year to remove the tumour, he was given the green light to go back running. From then, it wasn’t long before he was plotting his return to the football pitch.
“It’s a great feeling,” Farren recalls. “When you get that news straight away, it’s unlikely you’ll ever play again. To find out there is a chance is a great feeling. Now, it’s not that I treat every game as my last but I just enjoy every game that comes.”
The games will be even more enjoyable once Derry click into gear. By their own high standards, they’ve had a disappointing start to the season, their first under new manager Declan Devine since Stephen Kenny left for Shamrock Rovers.
Two draws and two defeats from their opening seven games have already seen them fall six points off the early pace set by Sligo Rovers. After going to the Showgrounds and fighting for a 1-1 draw last week, Farren knows that Derry need to keep that run going against Dundalk this evening.
It’s a big game for us to try to get ourselves back to a good position in the league again. We’ve been playing better the last couple of games, so hopefully we can continue that.
Every game is tough in the league but we’ve been doing ok at home so we’ve just really got to go for the win against Dundalk. They’re a decent side with a good manager as well but we’ve got to just go for it and get ourselves back up there again.
It’s probably not the ideal time to be playing Dundalk. No side likes to lose 6-0 and the heavy beating which tonight’s visitors took in Tallaght last week will have stung their pride, making Derry’s task that little bit more difficult.
“Obviously they’ll want to put that bad result to bed, but we’ve got to try to do the same. It’ll be a tough game, we know that, but as I said our home form has been good. The last couple of games have given us confidence in what we can do.”
A win tonight would go a long way towards kick-starting Derry’s season but their patchy form isn’t that much of a concern, Farren explains. A lot of it can be put down to a bit of bad luck with injuries and a fixture pile-up which has seen them play four games in the space of 10 days.
Farren has particularly felt the strain of that heavy workload. In those first few games at the tail end of last season, it was all about easing himself back. A knee injury, which ruled him out of most of the pre-season fitness work, didn’t help matters either.
I’m finding it a bit difficult fitness-wise, trying to keep up. Obviously I’m just happy enough to be playing and I’m getting fitter all the time so hopefully I can continue that over the next couple of weeks and maybe get a few more goals.
Games give you match fitness. I’m still lacking that bit of fitness that I should have but hopefully that will come in time.
Old dog, new trick
Despite the so-so results, quite a few of Derry’s rising stars have started to turn heads this season. Those scouring Foyleside for the next James McClean have been taken by the performances of Stephen McLaughlin and Patrick McEleney in particular but Farren feels that there are plenty more that will start courting attention.
“Apart from Paddy and Stevie, there are so many more good young players around. It’s actually scary.
“If things happen and they do move on, it’ll be tough for us to replace those players but we’ve done it in the past. We’ve always been a club to find good young players so hopefully those boys can continue on playing well. Obviously it would help their career if they moved on so it would be good for them.”
Among these young starlets, 29-year-old Farren is one of the squad’s old hands. Still, he remembers arriving at the club as a whippet himself in 2003 and the lessons he learned from some Candystripe legends. Now it’s his turn to pass them on.
As you’re getting a bit older, you’ve got to be a bit more of a leader. When I was a young player there were a lot of older players that I learned a lot from so hopefully I can teach the young guys a few things and the right way to do things.
That’s the way it goes. Gary Beckett helped me a lot. Peter Hutton as well, he was unbelievable. He was a great leader and a great professional.
Then, of course, there’s Liam Coyle. Their paths hardly crossed at all during the twilight of Coyle’s playing career but may do soon. With two more goals Farren will eclipse him as the club’s most prolific scorer, but as you’d expect from a man who is Derry City through and through, he’s only focused on the team.
“It’d be nice to have that record at the club, but it’s not something you think about really. You just want to get goals to help the team win the game. It doesn’t really matter who scores to be honest.”