When Derry City get their season underway on Friday night with the curtain raiser of a President's Cup final against reigning league champions Shamrock Rovers, Colm Whelan's absence from the Candystripes matchday squad will be no surprise.

The Republic of Ireland under-21 international is still some weeks away from a return to action as he recovers from last summer's season-ending cruciate knee ligament injury.

At the time of that setback, the then-UCD forward was on the cusp of a potential move away to the UK with English League One outfit Lincoln City hovering with intent.

The burgeoning interest in him had come off the back of strong individual performances for the Students in the first half of last season's SSE Airtricity League Premier Division when he netted four times prior to the injury, having already plundered 40 goals in all competitions across the previous two First Division campaigns.

Whelan celebrates with Kerrigan (r) after scoring for UCD in the 2021 play-off final against Waterford

Those two seasons and a half had seen the Kilkenny native form part of a dynamic duo with fellow Ireland U21 international Liam Kerrigan, who had also been tipped with a move away from UCD.

Whereas Whelan's trajectory was stalled, Sligoman Kerrigan did get a transfer and much further afield, becoming part of what was a growing trend of Irish youngsters at Italian clubs by signing for Como.

Unfortunately, just like Whelan, he sustained an injury to his cruciate which has curtailed his involvement in Serie B after an encouraging start to the 2022-23 season.

But the two pals have remained in close contact as they acclimatise to Derry and northern Italy respectively.

"Me and Liam, we'd be good mates," Whelan said during the launch of the 2023 Leauge of Ireland season at Dublin's City Hall.

Whelan at the 2023 LOI season launch at City Hall, Dublin

"He picked up the same injury as me a few months after so we'd keep in touch about how we're getting on and stuff.

"I really enjoyed playing with Liam and the two of us knew how to play with each other."

The opportunity to visit his friend and former team-mate in northern Italy has not come to pass yet, though not for lack of effort.

"My brother actually lives in Switzerland and during Christmas I was over there but Liam unfortunately he went back to Ireland. I was texting him asking 'are you in Como?' because I was only an hour away on the train or something so I was going to go down but he was back in Ireland then so it didn't work out but I'll catch up with him again," Whelan said.

As both of them continue their recoveries, one of the team-mates they shared the Ireland Under-21 dressing room with, Evan Ferguson, has been going from strength to strength in the Premier League.

'I was four years older than him and he was bigger than me'

The Brighton striker has scored three Premier League goals already since New Year's Eve and is in line to add to his two senior caps when Ireland kick-off the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign next month.

Whelan expressed no surprise about the 18-year-old's rapid rise.

"I would have been in four or five squads with him. We would have been challenging each other for starting but he's flying now. Fair play to him," he said, before highlighting how Ferguson's size and power were already evident at such a young age.

"The size of him. As in, he came in for his first (squad) at 16 and I was four years older than him and he was bigger than me."

A level of maturity beyond his years is also something often spoken about in regard to Ferguson, a point Whelan backs up wholeheartedly.

"He's switched on. He's a really nice fella. That's how he is,"

When Whelan eventually gets back into the fray, Derry will be hopeful that he can pick up where he had left off after winning the race to sign him on a two-year contract last November.

Whelan, pictured alongside Shamrock Rovers' captain Ronan Finn ahead of the President's Cup final, won't be involved in the game

Joining a club that is entering the new season off the back of an FAI Cup win and a second-place finish in the Premier Division was the obvious attraction from Whelan's point of view.

"Everyone can see that Derry are really building something exciting and I'm just really looking forward to getting back out on the pitch," he said.

"(The injury recovery) is going well. I'm back running and doing ball work and all. It'll be another couple of months before I'm back fully on the pitch. But I'm itching to get going."

Whelan had first hand experience of Derry at their best last season when he featured in UCD's first two games against the Candystripes. The first of those was a 2-0 loss at Belfield. The second was a 7-1 trouncing in Derry.

"I was just chasing shadows really. I didn't get a touch on the ball and I was in the Brandywell when we lost 7-1," he recalled.

"That was a tough one to take on the other side but you can see how impressive they are, how well they play and they want to play football the right way so that's good."

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