29 Sept 2022

TODAY 25 YEARS AGO! Relive Derry City's last title-winning season!

'I knew then that the team was special because they never gave in and they had a never say die attitude.'

Derry City

Felix Healy's champions went 25 unbeaten in all competitions in 1996/97

1996/97 Season

THE Bosman ruling could not have come at a better time for Derry City Football Club (Ltd) which was struggling financially.

The start to the new season turned out to be a fantastic one for Derry City fans, as the club announced a double signing from Glentoran: young goalkeeper Declan Devine joined his home town club, and the mercurial Liam Coyle returned to the Brandywell, just eight months after leaving. Gavin Dykes, James Keddy and defender Ritchie Purdy also joined.

All eyes turned to a mouth-watering derby game against Harps on the opening day of the new league season. Liam Coyle’s afternoon lasted just 25 minutes as he broke a bone in his elbow, but his replacement, Sean Hargan, made the game’s only telling contribution, scoring the winning goal early in the second half. It meant that in 26 games over 11 years, Finn Harps still had not beaten Derry City.

Derry won their first four league games, including a memorable victory at Oriel Park, when they came from 2-0 down to win, and questions began to be asked about another possible title challenge from the Brandywell team.

“For me personally, the first time I felt we could win it was when we went away to Dundalk and we were two down after ten minutes but we came back to win 4-2,” Peter Hutton explained. “I knew then that the team was special because they never gave in and they had a never say die attitude.  But we knew ourselves that we couldn’t take anything for granted.”

The month of October however was nowhere near as encouraging for Felix Healy, as his team picked up just two points from a possible twelve while also being knocked out of the League Cup by Galway United. Draws against Sligo Rovers and Shelbourne bookended successive defeats against UCD and Cork, and from leading the Premier Division, Derry were now chasing, trailing league leaders Bohs by five points.

Derry’s response was impressive as back-to-back wins over Bray Wanderers took the Candy Stripes back up to second. They then went top with wins over Finn Harps, Home Farm and Dundalk and it was clear that Felix Healy’s team were getting into their stride.

The hope of new signings was the furthest thing from people’s minds as Derry were involved in their most controversial game since entering the League of Ireland in 1985 as huge controversy overshadowed a 1-0 win over Bohemians at the Brandywell.

A scoreless first half saw tempers spill over at half time as Felix Healy approached referee Pat Dempsey over what he felt was aggressive tackling from the Bohemians players, and in particular defender James Coll. Healy and Coll became involved in a physical altercation and both men were red carded as the teams made their way to the changing rooms.

The only goal of the game came as a result of a contentious penalty two minutes into the second half with referee Dempsey adjudging that Paul Doolin had handled James Keddy’s cross. Gary Beckett found the net from the resultant penalty and the goal was enough to put the Candy Stripes four points clear at the top. However, the ill will from events at half time continued at the final whistle, with the match official drenched in water by a Bohemians official, while Healy was subjected to abuse from the Bohemians players outside the changing areas.

The result was lost in a sea of controversy and both clubs were reported to the league authorities as a result.

 “James Coll was absolutely kicking lumps out of Gary Beckett,” Hutton insisted. “He was getting away with blue murder and to be fair to Felix he stood up for his players and he remonstrated with the referee and I think there were fisticuffs going through the tunnel at half time. If anything, we didn’t need a team talk at half time because that galvanised us and it was fitting that Gary scored the winning goal because of the abuse he had to take that day.”

The club was fined £1000 for failing to provide adequate security to the match officials, the largest fine ever handed out by the association. On top of that, Felix Healy was banned from the dug-out for eleven games and fined £250.


Football matters

On the pitch, Derry’s good form continued with an FAI Cup win over Leinster Senior League outfit Crumlin United to the Brandywell, while Hargan got out of his sick bed to score the winning goal at Turner’s Cross to send Derry City nine points clear at the top of the Premier Division.

February demanded a lot from Derry City who were forced to play six games over 20 days in three competitions and Liam Coyle starred. The mercurial striker scored against Home Farm in the FAI Cup and UCD in the league, while Hargan continued his knack of scoring crucial goals at crucial times as he headed in the only goal of the game 13 minutes from time to defeat Finn Harps at Ballybofey.

The good feelings intensified following a definitive seven days in March in which the Candy Stripes picked up two significant victories, Gary Beckett scoring the winning goal against Cork in the FAI Cup before a significant 2-0 win at Dalymount just days later. The victory, courtesy of goals from Tommy Dunne and Liam Coyle, sent Derry eleven points clear with seven games to go, and even a reticent Felix Healy admitted that the end goal was in sight. Healy joked that while the fat lady had not yet sung, she was preparing to go shopping for a new dress.

In the final of the Irish News Cup Final at the Sligo Showgrounds, Derry’s reserves went down 3-0, but of more importance to the manager was the game at UCD on March 30, and it proved to be another decisive night in the race for the Premier Division title. The game was deadlocked until Healy made two telling substitutions, bringing both Liam Coyle and Peter Hutton off the bench in the second half, with the latter scoring the only goal of the game with just three minutes left on the clock.

The league was all over bar the shouting.

“UCD was always a difficult venue,” Hutton agreed. “I remember I had been out for four weeks previously with a knee ligament injury. The day before the game I was training in the Showgrounds and it still hurt but I still went to Belfield and was kicking the ball about in the warm up with Joe Loughlin and suddenly felt okay. I tried a few block tackles and a few shots and I felt nothing so we told Felix and he put me on the bench. I actually had to get a loan of shin pads because I wasn’t prepared to play. It transpired that myself and Liam Coyle came on together in the second half and late on Liam flicked the ball into the box and I scored a volley and we won 1-0. It was just a season when we seemed to do no wrong.”

Talk of a ‘double’ accompanied each Derry success, especially when Derry defeated Bohemians at Dalymount as Derry reached their third FAI Cup final in four years.

The second leg of the Irish News Cup final became legendary, as despite falling behind, making it 4-0 on aggregate, Derry City came behind to win the most remarkable game. Young striker Ronan Kelly scored for Derry, before Sean Hargan scored twice in eight minutes with Sean McCabe equalising overall on 83 minutes. With Sligo on the ropes, Paul Hegarty received the ball on the right before he cut inside onto his left foot. The midfielder had options left and right but he went direct and sent a stunning and unstoppable shot straight into the top corner from all of 25 yards. The goal not only completed one of the most stunning comebacks in Irish football history, but it won the Irish News Cup for Derry City. It was a truly remarkable achievement given the circumstances.

“It was one of the greatest comebacks ever in Irish football without a doubt,” Hutton insisted. “The football played that night was unbelievable and it was a pity there wasn’t a bigger crowd. Sligo had a very experienced team while we had a very young side. When Sligo scored the young players must have thought they would just have a lash because they had nothing left to lose. We got one, then we got two, then we got three and Sligo started to panic. Paul Hegarty then scored an absolute wonder goal. It was unreal stuff because he wasn’t renowned for scoring. It was one of those nights that lives long in the memory.”


Finish line

The big games now began to come thick and fast for Derry City, who travelled to Dublin on April 12 for a top of the table clash with Shelbourne.

It was quite simply win or bust for the hosts, but despite taking the lead, they could only draw thanks to another goal from Beckett, and they could no longer catch Derry City, barring a complete meltdown from the leaders.

Shelbourne lost 3-2 against Finn Harps and such was the inevitability of the title win at this stage that the championship trophy was brought to the Brandywell on April 19 even before a ball had been kicked. Fittingly, Derry City needed to record just one more victory, against deposed champions St. Patrick’s Athletic, to be confirmed as league winners, and 6,000 fans packed into the Brandywell to see the coronation.

Beckett opened the scoring in the first half and the win was then sealed just three minutes into the second half when Liam Coyle sent Peter Hutton racing through on goal, and the captain made no mistake, firing in his 17th goal in all competitions. Derry City were champions again, and with two games to spare.

Peter Hutton accepted the league trophy after the game, becoming the first Derry man to captain his team to a League of Ireland championship, and the celebrations began.

Derry City were back on top at last.

“We just had to make sure we remained focused and didn’t slip up,” Hutton said. “It was the perfect way to finish a fantastic season. It was Roy of the Rovers stuff for me personally. I finished as top goal scorer and I was the first captain of my home town team to win the league. I also won individual honours at the end of the year and so being able to do it all at the Brandywell in front of a huge crowd was special. It was a real collective effort. The four boys that Felix brought in at the start really added strength and depth to the squad that was there.”


Cup final tragedy

Felix Healy’s team were unsurprisingly strong favourites to make it a league and cup double when they met Shelbourne in the FAI Cup Final at Dalymount Park on May 4.

The preparations for the final were completely overshadowed however by the tragic death of Conor O’Dowd, the brother of Derry City goalkeeper Tony. The news devastated not only the O’Dowd family, but the Derry camp, who knew just how close the brothers had been.

With O’Dowd understandably ruled out of the final as a consequence, Declan Devine took his place in goals for the biggest game of his career. A minute’s silence was held in honour of the O’Dowd family before the game with a clearly sombre Derry still reeling from meeting their devastated team mate earlier that morning.

With Derry not at themselves, Dubliners began to take control and with just ten minutes remaining they made the breakthrough when Pascal Vaudequin’s cross found the head of Dave Campbell, whose close range header took a deflection off Gavin Dykes to take it past Devine. The game was then up for Derry when Stephen Geoghegan took advantage of a mistake from the otherwise imperious Paul Curran to race away to score Shelbourne’s second to end Derry’s cup dream.

“If anything that put the final in perspective,” Hutton admitted. “We were all geared up for the game but we were all shell shocked when it happened. Given the season that we had been through, we were all a very tight group and it impacted on us all. We were still focused on trying to win the cup and everyone was looking forward to the final, but Tony called out to the hotel to wish us all the best and we all met him individually. We couldn’t get that picture of Tony out of our heads. It was a bit sombre on the bus going to the game and that didn’t help in terms of trying to win the trophy but in saying that, that’s not the reason we lost the game.”

For Peter Hutton, a magical season ended with honours from his peers as he was named both the Personality of the Year by the League of Ireland Soccer Writers and the Players’ Player of the Year.

Meanwhile, an amusing debate between fans – ‘Was the 1997 Derry City team better than the 1989 Derry City team?’ – was answered in Paul Curran’s testimonial game at the Brandywell on May 11. Over one thousand fans turned out to see the 1989 treble winners take an early lead through John Coady, but the 1997 champions ran out 3-1 winners thanks to a double from Sean Hargan and a goal from Gary Heaney.

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