Derry City FC was founded in 1928, after the city of Derry was left without a senior soccer team in 1913. Before, Derry Celtic represented the town, playing out of what is now Derry GAA’s HQ — Celtic Park. City is based just down the road from Celtic Park, in the Brandywell, which in recent years received a serious facelift. The dog track that once distinguished the Brandywell has been moved to an adjacent site, allowing the pitch to be much closer to the existing Southend Stand.
From 1928 to 1971, Derry played in the (Northern) Irish League, but the political situation that surrounded the club’s Bogside home put an end to its time in the Irish League.
I met up with longtime Derry City supporter and solicitor at Associated Press, Michael Kealey, to talk about the history of the Candystripes. Michael also commentates on Derry City matches for Drive 105, a Derry-based community radio station.
Derry had a good run in the mid-1960s, with the club winning the Irish Cup in 1964 and the Irish League in 1965. However, a huge blow was dealt to the club when the Brandywell was deemed unsafe by other teams in the Irish League.
“There’s a whole history with the club, which would have been viewed as predominantly Nationalist, and its relationship with the authorities in the Irish Football Association. To cut a long story short,” explained Michael, “what happened in 1971 was that Derry was told that they had to play their home games in Coleraine, about a 40-minute drive away.”
City appealed to the IFA for a return to the Brandywell in 1971, but that appeal was turned down. City decided to walk away from the League.
Michael says he would have been young then, but he went to Irish League matches. Suddenly, Michael and other soccer fans in Derry didn’t have a team to support anymore.
All this changed in 1985, when Derry applied to join the (Southern) League of Ireland. They had to get special dispensation from UEFA and FIFA as well as the Irish League. To the great surprise of nearly everyone involved, the Northern teams agreed.
Michael explained: “It was great for me because I was in Trinity until ’81, then Cambridge from ’81 to ’82, and moved back to Ireland in 1982. Around then I used to go to see Shamrock Rovers play in Milltown because it was close to where I was living.”
“But when Derry came back in 1985, they got massive crowds following them around the country; clubs were effectively getting a year’s worth of money from a match with Derry.”
“Monaghan had a team then and I think we took around 9,000 people down to Monaghan”
Derry City stayed in the second division for a few years after joining the League of Ireland and gained promotion to the Premier division in 1987.
In 1989, Derry became the first team — and Michael warned me to emphasise this — to win the treble: the League, the FAI Cup and the League cup all in the same year.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been plain sailing for Derry since their glory days of 1989. In 2009, they were relegated from the Premier Division due to financial irregularities, where players were receiving more money than their contracts stated.
“It seemed terrible at the time,” Michael relayed, “but looking back it wasn’t too bad; it put an end to a lot of the madness of the time.”
City recovered well, winning the League Cup in 2010 and 2018 as well as the FAI Cup in 2012. The period of rebuilding also gave James McClean his senior debut.
However, Michael talks of the difficulty teams have attracting players and convincing them to stay.
“For a lot of people playing for a Dublin team is easier,” Kealey explained, “and because of the full-time nature of the League, you’re effectively telling players that they’re going to have to live in Derry full-time, and that’s a step too far for some people.”
Another disadvantage is that Derry City players can’t apply for Sportsperson’s Tax Relief, a system which allows athletes claim tax back on income earned by through sport, but only offered by the Dublin Government. Even though Derry play in the Southern League, the club being based in the 6 counties excludes it from this benefit.
However, Brexit is causing more young footballers to stay in Ireland for longer, as English teams are unable to scout teenage players anymore. This has increased the standard of the League, making it more attractive for the general public.
European matches have also proved to be of major benefit to the League of Ireland. Each successful European run generates public interest, but, from a purely financial point of view, winning one European game is worth about €100,000. Comparatively, winning the League of Ireland is worth about €140,000. Rovers qualification for the Conference league is worth roughly €3 million, which equates to a nice profit, even when all expenses are accounted for.
From a supporters point of view, European matches offer them the chance to go to places you’d never go to. Michael has been to Armenia, Belarus twice, and Latvia twice.
Michael believes the League of Ireland has a bright future: “It took a long time for an Irish team to get into the group stages of Europe, but I think that will change. We’re going to see more Irish clubs being more competitive. It might start with the Conference league, but even that would be a major benefit.”
“Like, look at Scotland, outside of Celtic and Rangers it’s a similar standard and they get 15,000-20,000 at their games. Like Sligo beat Motherwell, Bohs have put out Aberdeen.”
While people sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the way a sport is now is the way it always will be, Kealey responded by drawing a good comparison with mid-90’s rugby: “Look at what the provincial and national teams are doing now, but I remember in the 1980’s when people in the Irish Times were saying that it would be appalling if rugby became a professional sport! People forget about the degree of opposition there was.”
Derry, who are currently sitting second in the league, will be busy preparing for their upcoming FAI Cup final against Shelbourne. Tickets are well-priced, so I would encourage anyone to go down to Lansdowne Road and go in for a look.
The future is definitely looking good for League soccer in Ireland