A picturesque view from the Derry Walls.
Towards the end of the 2021 season, Dutch journalists Wouter Schollema and Mathieu Van Strijp visited the city as part of research into a new book, ‘Voetbalstad Belfast’, a book about Irish football which will be released later this year. Wouter wrote the following piece about his visit to Derry City for Dutch football magazine ‘‘Staantribune’, with reference to a particularly memorable visit to the Brandywell.
On the day of the game, I met with Gary Ferry, journalist of Derry News.
"For thirteen long years Derry City didn't play professional soccer,” he said. “You have to realize that during the Troubles they had other things on their minds. For thirteen years Derry City has been trying to return, but for thirteen years the IFA has held up the return. The IFA was no longer waiting for Derry City.”
Four former players then come up with the idea to cross the border. If there can't play football in Northern Ireland, then maybe in Ireland, then maybe in Ireland.
In April 1984 local amateurs were dressed in clothing for a practice match against Shamrock Rovers to find out whether anyone is waiting to play soccer in Derry. Brandywell was packed for the practice match. It was obvious that there was enthusiasm for soccer in the city. After the necessary networking required, the transfer to the to the Irish league was approved.
Seven thousand spectators witnessed the first official match, a League Cup match at home against Home Farm.
"Derry City was enthusiastically welcomed into the Irish league," says Ferry. "Suddenly thousands of people came to away games. In a league where money has always been has always been an issue, that was naturally very pleasing."
Derry's matches were massively attended. In 1986, a procession of nineteen buses headed south, followed by a specially deployed train with seven hundred supporters and thousands of supporters who own transport to make the nine-hour journey.
Over seven thousand supporters travelled after the club to Cork.
Away games are real family outings changed the image of the city. During the Troubles, people barely went out of the city. Soccer now gave them a reason to travel and show that Derry was more about than the Troubles.
"Our away games were one big celebration," says Derry City's press secretary Lawrence Moore.
Dutch journalist Wouter Schollema with Derry City manager Ruaidhri Higgins.
"We took so many people with us that everyone was happy for us. Problem was, though, that our buses broke down regularly. Sometimes something was thrown under them, so we always had mechanics with us and an extra set of tires.
"That game at Cork was, of course legendary. There were so many horrendous many people that day, it was unique in Irish soccer. And it was quite a journey, we were on the road for two days! There even came a new cup (the League of Ireland First Division Shield). Everyone wanted to play against us, if only for the revenue. Each round got a home and away game to make sure the cash register would ring."
The Candystripes won the Shield in their first season back, meaning that Derry City could call itself a fixture at the highest level. Since then, the club has even captured the Irish title in 1989 and 1997.
In the stadium, you see no signs of the struggles the club has gone through, or the scars the city carries with it.
"At Derry, politics or religion is not an issue," says Ferry. "Everyone is welcome, both players and supporters. There are, for example no political or sectarian banners to be seen. Of course, things happen from time to time, but I wouldn't put it in a sectarian corner."
It is an hour or two before kick-off, and Mathieu and I have to tackle a few problems. First of all, I would like to loot the fanshop, but it is closed due to corona. Second, I still have to get a pint to get my temperature back to 37 degrees and third, my stomach is rumbling.
Moore's warning impresses, nothing will be open tonight. Fortunately, we get some instructions. A few blocks away is a neighborhood supermarket and fan shop in one, with a pub next to it. Where the Bogside already looks a bit bleak in daylight, it is completely gloomy in the dark.
Mathieu now has the pub in his sights. Somehow I'm not excited about it here, but if the busy Twente supporter two kilometers away smells even a drop of beer, he is unstoppable. Mathieu mumbles something in Twents and throws open the door.
Derry City defeated St. Patrick’s Athletic 1-0 last October. Pic by George Sweeney, nwpresspics
As so often in Derry, the environment does not match the hospitality of the people. Immediately, the pub makes way for two Dutch tourists, one of whom is shivering with a warm drink of a divine half liter of Guinness. The pub is a must.
There are cozy and friendly people, as there are everywhere in Derry, and the pictures on the walls make it complete. Black and white photos of Derry City hang around us. The only color photo is a yellowed photo of the 1st Batalion Derry Brigade, which unfortunately has little to do with the hard core of Derry City for clapper lovers.
Suddenly there is some consternation in the pub. A camera crew enters the pub and very spontaneously wants to shoot a group of elderly supporters.
Jackets are removed so that the Derry City shirts are visible on the men in question and the men are ordered to stand close to each other. Since Mathieu is even more annoying than usual when he has beer, he also tries to get me in front of the camera. Luckily I left in time.
I plop down between a group of older men. One of them introduces himself as George. He is about seventy, born and raised in the Bogside and attends every home game at Brandywell. Like everyone I meet in Derry these days, he is genuinely interested in why we are here.
When I tell him I'm writing a book about football in Derry and Belfast, he curls up closer to me. "You know", it used to be really not easy here. Something always happened. You tried as best you could to live your own life and to stay far away from all conditions.
“The only thing that really matters is your own family. I now even have great-grandchildren, that is really the most beautiful thing in my life. Unfortunately I hardly ever see some of them, as one of my children has emigrated to Australia. There's not much future prospects here, you know. That's why Derry City is so important. We don't do politics, everyone is welcome. It's all about football, nothing else.” When I tell George about our visit to Cliftonville the next day, he makes a throw-away gesture.
"Don't go there, it's all about politics there. It should be about football!'
Before George can continue talking, the spotlights turn on, the camera turns and the local Men's Choir goes wild. George explains that they sing the club song, ‘Teenage Kicks’ by the Undertones. The song is a lot less impressive when sung by a group of middle-aged men alone. I promise George to sing this song obediently in the stadium, grab Mathieu by the collar and walk out of the pub. With ten minutes left until kick-off, I think it's high time to go back to the stadium.
Brandywell is sold out for tonight's clash between number four Derry City and number two St. Patrick's. Since the top three, or if the cup winner is in the top three, the top four, go into Europe, there's something at stake tonight.
Brandywell has something special. The grandstand opposite the main stand is particularly striking because of its shape. There is a strange bend in the stands, which continues behind the two short sides to behind the corner flag. It is a remnant of the days when dog races were held in Brandywell. Fortunately, the strange shape of the grandstand has been preserved.
Behind the grandstand you have a beautiful view of the Irish hills in daylight. We won't see that background tonight, but the look at Brandywell under the light poles makes up for a lot. Both stands are full and next to the main stand some supporters are leaning on a crush barrier. Two sea containers are stacked on top of each other next to the standing places. The top one serves as a boardroom on match days, the bottom one is the fan shop.
The houses are clearly visible behind one of the short sides, thanks to the stadium lamps, the residents can keep the lamps off. It's football romance as it should be. A few scarves and flags have been tied over the fence in front of the main stand.
Every now and then a young supporter runs back and forth with a flag.
There is no evidence of sectarian tensions anywhere in the stadium. The police only come to the stadium in extreme emergencies, otherwise the stewards can solve everything themselves. Something that has been happening in this way since the return in 1985. There are no Irish flags, messages of support for minorities or anything to be seen anywhere.
The atmosphere in the main stand is very sleep-inducing. It's as quiet as a mouse. The greatest amusement comes from the daughter of one of the substitutes. While mom hopes that her husband will be able to participate in the second half, she is engaged in a battle with her toddler. Everything the mother hands is thrown on the floor.
Mathieu is done with it and decides that we will follow the second half in the other stand. The atmosphere there is wonderful. Everyone stands, sings, drinks cans of beer and dies a thousand dead from the competition. There's no need for that, of course, because Mathieu and I bring good luck tonight.
While St. Patrick's miss chance after chance, Derry takes the only chance of the match against the ropes. The discharge in the stands is gigantic and the tension in the stands rises to record heights in the last few minutes. Both teams get a red card, the guests miss another chance and for me someone has a lot of trouble channeling their anger. Foaming at his mouth, he rages at his neighbor when someone from the home team mows over the ball again. I don't want to know how he would react if it were a really important game.
Derry City wins. While we wait for Lawrence Moore after the game, we suddenly find ourselves back on the field. Players are interviewed around us, some children run after a ball and we have to avoid substitutes who still have to do some sprints.
Suddenly there is a tap on our shoulders. Are we the Dutch visitors? That's right. The club employee thanks us for our visit and hands over a bag full of souvenirs from the club shop. It fits the image I got of the city after a few days. The city does not always look very inviting. The inhabitants have been through a lot, but they are incredibly friendly and hospitable. I will definitely come back here.
Derry City has become a surprisingly normal club become in a region where little really has been normal.
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