Monday, 30 April 2018


Derry City  0  Shamrock Rovers  0

League of Ireland – Premier Division

To understand my Derry City story, I have to take you back to February 2005.

I’d been on a mission in the 2004-05 season, a mission to write a book as a gift for my Father who was due to retire after 34 years with the NHS in the May.

The book was essentially a travelogue of a journey through a football season, it was to contain over 100 games, most of which were first time visits to the venues. It had got to around the February time and I was starting to think about finishing the season on a high, and doing something special to finish the book.

I considered various Cup Finals, but none of them really filled me with much inspiration, but then after a heavy night of consumption, I found myself drifting in and out of sleep one Saturday morning. 

At some point as I was somewhere between states of consciousness I was having a kind of dream / flashback to my childhood, and a poster I had on my bedroom wall.

I had numerous posters on bedroom wall as a child, all of which came from Shoot Magazine, but one caused me more curiosity than all of the others. You see, I supported Derby County, but I’d never heard of a team called Derby City, who played in red and white stripes?

I did what all kids did, summoned my Mother to the room and sought her clarification.

“It’s not Derby City, it’s Derry City, they’re from Ireland, and it’s the place where your Grandad Jim came from.”

The New Mark Farren Stand
Suddenly it all became clear, and I’d not given it another moments thought, until that Saturday morning. That poster, and Derry City were emblazoned on my mind, it was time to just consider things for a few moments.

I’d never really thought an awful lot about Grandad Jim, he died not long after I was born, but I did know he was an Irishman from Derry. Possibilities were now churning away in my mind. Did Derry City still exist, did they have any games at the end of the season, how easy would it be to go over, was it safe? If this was feasible, then I could have inadvertently found the perfect ending to the book.

Armed with a cup of coffee, I turned on the computer and entered the magic words into the search engine, and up came a website for Derry City Football Club. So at least they existed, but what about fixtures? The season was over, but a new one was to begin in March, Summer football it appeared, and when I studied the fixtures, the game against St Patrick’s Athletic on the 20th May looked like the best option.

Now, you have to remember at this point in my life I’d not been out of the Country for several years, I didn’t have a Passport, and the furthest I’d ever travelled on my own was to Bournemouth for a training course!

After lots of research I managed to put a trip together, flights from Liverpool to Belfast International, two nights in the Travelodge, and a Passport was ordered. That was the logistics sorted, but I had other stuff to do as well.

A Packed Brandywell
Firstly I needed to make sure I could actually get in to watch the game, so I rung the club and they were very helpful, I could buy tickets on the day, and get a tour of the ground if I turned up early enough!

Secondly, and I needed my Mum’s input with this, I wanted to find my Grandad’s family home, so it meant doing some delving around to find an address. Mother came up with the goods, but it would be a case of trial and error when I arrived in Derry, you see it was before the days of Google Maps and a street map proved almost impossible to obtain.

Finally, was it safe? Of course, I was naïve at the time, but when you thought of Derry your mind immediately went back to the images of the Troubles. The Good Friday agreement had been signed, but even so, Northern Ireland was still tainted in the minds of many from across the water. My Mum was nervous about me going, but she knew my mind was made up. I did as much homework as I could, spoke to one or two people, and the consensus was that as long as I kept myself to myself and was careful where I went, then I would be fine.

The trip finally arrived, and it was with a sense of excitement and trepidation that I made my way from the Railway Station, over the Craigavon Bridge and then along the edges of the River Foyle to my base. The first night was spent touring one or two watering holes, but the following day it was when the real adventure was about to start.

Where Terraces Once Stood
With ticket secured from the Brandywell along with a brief, I followed the signs to the Rosemount area of the City, the area where my Grandad’s former home was. I had a street name, Epworth Street, but finding it was going to be a challenge, or so I thought.  Once at the top of the hill, I turned right at the roundabout, simply because I saw a dustbin lorry and thought they would know where I could find it.

I didn’t need the dustmen, because within moments on my left I’d stumbled across the road I was looking for. I walked down the road and there it was, number 23, my Grandad’s home. Since he moved over in the Forties to England, to the best of our knowledge I was the first and only person who’s been back across from the family. I paused for a few minutes, took some photographs before walking away with a sense of emotion and euphoria. I phoned my Mum….

I spent the rest of the day wandering the City, immersing myself in the history of its violent, troubled and tragic recent past. The murals and indeed the memorials were awe inspiring, but at the same time, this was a City and a population that was at the start of a journey, one that was uncertain, but a journey towards something better for everyone.

After nervously ordering a pint at the Oakgrove Bar with my English accent, it was time for the game, and it was then that I truly realised that I’d not just been on a trip, I’d been on a discovery. I’d discovered Derry, I’d discovered the Brandywell, I’d discovered Derry City and I’d discovered something that was to ultimately became a life changing experience.

The game ended 2-2, but for me it was about the quite brilliant atmosphere inside the Brandywell. The passion, the noise and the creativity blew me away. This was a proper football club, with proper fans, and I felt part of it.

Of course, the book was completed, the ending was perfect. My Dad was stunned by it, but that book had inadvertently opened a new chapter.

We both went over to see a game and visit the City a year later, but it coincided with a period where things were really starting to happen for City on the field. I saw the away games in Europe at Paris and Gretna, the Gretna game being possibly the single most amazing football game and experience I’ve ever witnessed. Whereas it was while in Paris that I met John Coyle and his family, we have remained good friends ever since. I also met Martin McGuinness on the same trip outside Quigley's Point, and what an engaging man he was, he seemed really interested in my story.

I ended up being invited to write an article for the City View match programme, and I also attended a few away games as well, notably at Cork City and at Linfield, which was an experience in itself.

Nowadays, I try to go twice a season, typically with a view to getting to a game in the Northern Irish League on the Saturday, with City playing on a Friday night. I was at the infamous first game in Buncrana that was abandoned  due to floodlight failure, whereas the year previously my now wife Rachael made her first visit to the Maiden City and the Brandywell.

This time around, it was about returning to the Brandywell after the recent redevelopment work, a new stand has been built and an artificial pitch laid, so my plans were made.

It follows a familiar pattern now, flight to Belfast City, 212 bus to Derry, lunch, a few pubs, including Jacks Bar where I’ve struck up a connection with the lad who runs the place, before checking into my regular B&B that sits less than fifty yards from my Grandad’s old place.

Then it’s about meeting John and his wife Lyndon at Sandinos, before we head off together for something to eat and then finally the match.

Derry have had a very good season, sitting fourth in the table, despite a poor start, and with visiting Shamrock Rovers only just behind them in the standings, demand for tickets was high. I’d bought mine online the week before, but as kick off approached it was being reported the game was close to being a sell-out.

A near capacity crowd of 3,700 packed into a Brandywell Stadium that is looking very smart following it’s make over. The old Southend Road Stand remains, with the away fans tucked into the corner, and it was next to them we were sat. Both ends remain inaccessible but the new stand, named after centre forward Mark Farren who passed away in 2016, is an impressive structure. It is possible for spectators to stand at either side of the stand, but ultimately the Brandywell is on its way to becoming an all-seater stadium.

A Shams Fan - He Spent Eighty Minutes Asleep
To be honest, it wasn’t a very good game. The first half was not overly inspiring, but in the second period it was the hosts from Dublin who had the upper hand and to be fair they’ll be kicking themselves for not having broken the deadlock as chances came and went begging. Derry, in the end, were grateful for a point.

The Shamrock Rovers players came over at the final whistle to salute their travelling fans, and what a truly delightful bunch they were! After spending the game reminding us that we were indeed British and had a Queen to bow down to, they finished the night by stealing the Derry goalkeeper’s testimonial banner, and then having the audacity to display it on social media.

I’ve seen Shamrock Rovers play away from home on three occasions now, and never do things ever run smoothly or peacefully when they are in town, but the less perhaps said the better, because this is about Derry.

After the game it was back to Jack’s Bar, with John, to chew the fat, catch up on life, and talk about Derry, Ireland and what the future looks like. Brexit is a concern, especially the border issue, while debate about a United Ireland never seems to be far away.

Derry is a very different City to the one I first discovered. The British Army watchtowers have now gone and much of the paramilitary imagery and graffiti has also been dialed down. Derry is now marketing itself, very successfully, as a tourist hotbed, and it’s great to see so many tourists, especially foreign tourists on the Walls, at the Murals and in the Museums.  Derry is a very safe City nowadays.

Also, you sense the City is more at peace. Not just in terms of the violence, but also in terms of its history. The Saville Report exonerated those murdered on Bloody Sunday, and while closure for some will not truly happen while soldiers remain untried, you do sense a population who have started to move forward and live together harmoniously. There will always be factions, but in reality, no one wants a return to the bad old days.

I left Derry on the 212 the following morning for the next leg of the journey, but part of me will always stay behind, part of me will always be a Derryman.

The Ejection Steward Ponders Which One First.....

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