By Ryan Kelly
Patrick McEleney's experience as a footballer belies his relatively young age. A Republic of Ireland youth international whisked away to the Stadium of Light as a schoolboy after impressing scouts at English Premier League side Sunderland, he returned to his hometown club Derry City for the 2010 season and played a pivotal role as the Candystripes ran away with the First Division title.
In the 2011 season, still only a teenager, McEleney impressed as the Foylesiders finished third in the Premier Division and won the League Cup by beating Cork City 1-0 in the final at Turner's Cross.
The next year, the former Foyle Harps youth was again a key figure at the Brandywell as Derry reached the Setanta Sports Cup final and clinched their fifth FAI Cup, beating St Patrick's Athletic 3-2 in extra time. Over the course of the intervening seasons, he has also played in the Europa League.
With such a plethora of experiences under his belt, it is no surprise, then, that McEleney, now 22, exudes confidence as Derry City and St Pat's prepare to square off at Lansdowne Road for the third time in the space of a decade.
"It's brilliant to be in another final," McEleney told Goal. "Obviously there were a few of us there in 2012, so we know what it takes. We're all happy [to be in the final].
"The last time we played, it was more or less the same team that we'll be playing now and it's a one off game - it's a cup final - so we'll be confident enough going into it."
The Candystripes booked their place in the final of the competition after a 2-0 semi-final replay win over Shamrock Rovers, which drew the largest attendance of the season to Brandywell Stadium.
Derry are expected to have in the region of 7,000 supporters at the final on November 2 and McEleney is anticipating a good atmosphere when they face Liam Buckley's side.
"Whenever the Brandywell is rocking it's brilliant," he said of the semi-final attendance. "Other teams know that and we'll bring a good crowd down to the Aviva so it will be a good atmosphere."
However, Peter Hutton's men will need more than just strong support if they are to defy the odds and defeat the Saints. Despite having nothing to play for in the league but pride, the importance of the remaining fixtures has since been magnified as players fight for their place in the team ahead of the final.
"You need a bit of momentum going into the final, we all know that," stressed McEleney. "But as I say, we were there before, so we know what it takes. We'll be looking for a strong finish to the season."
McEleney's performances since returning to the Brandywell from Sunderland have naturally led to increasing interest in the attacking midfielder and his progress has been monitored by Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, as well as a number of clubs in Britain.
In recent years, the north-west outfit has been one of the more active exporters of talent in Ireland, and McEleney is all too aware of the opportunities that could potentially arise for him should he continue to impress.
James McClean, Danny Lafferty and Stephen McLaughlin all exited the Lone Moor Road club within the last three years. Others, such as David Forde, Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn also plied their trade in the League of Ireland with Derry before moving abroad.
However, despite admitting his desire to secure a move back across the Irish Sea in the future, the 22-year-old remains focused on performing to the highest level for Derry, with the FAI Cup final firmly within his sights.
"I've another year, so I'll just keep plugging away and look forward to the final," said the former Foyle Harps youth. "It's obviously a big stage. Everybody wants to get across the water [to Britain] so hopefully it will happen.
"I know what it takes; you just need to keep pushing on."
Derry City face St Patrick's Athletic in the final of the FAI Ford Cup on Sunday November 2.
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