Derry City, a club with an illustrious history through good times and bad, could write another glorious European chapter this season after eliminating Latvia’s Skonto Riga 2-1 on aggregate from the Europa League.
A triumph over CSKA Sofia in the second round would put them in the real money — but unable to stage further matches at the Brandywell which apparently doesn’t measure up to the category required as the tournament progresses.
That decision will inevitably kick-off the where-will-they-play speculation. Derry, who withdrew from the Irish League in the 1972-73 season, eventually gaining admission to the League of Ireland, have travelled down this European cul-de-sac before. The year 1965, competition the European Cup.
They had defeated FKLYN (Oslo) 8-6 on aggregate (3-5 and 5-1) in the preliminary round with the prospects of a long run in the series generating much-needed revenue, but drama and turmoil lurked just around the corner. The gathering storm clouds appeared ominous.
Derry, the first Irish League club to win over two legs, was gripped with Euro fever, a glamorous change from the run-of-the-mill domestic scene. It was heightened by a mouth-watering draw in the next round against Belgian club Anderlecht with the first leg played in Brussels. Then the bombshell dropped, those clouds burst when the Irish Football Association decided they could not recommend Brandywell to UEFA as they contended the facilities didn’t suit the big occasion. Uproar followed.
“No Brandywell, no match” was the curt response from Derry director-secretary Paddy Maxwell, while the treasurer Brian Desmond resigned from the board as he had no confidence in the impartiality of the IFA relating to Derry City and, therefore, could not remain a director of a club affiliated to such an Association.
“Withdrawal was no idle threat, no hot air or bluff,” revealed Frank Curran, the club historian, who as the Derry Journal football writer covered the club’s scene for decades. Nobody possesses such an encyclopedic knowledge of this famous and highly respected club as he does. Derry then forwarded the withdrawal documentation to UEFA — the first to take such a drastic step. Irate Brandywell officials felt they had no alternative.
Anderlecht general-secretary Eugene Steppe, anxious the match should go ahead at all costs, arrived in Derry with proposals in an eleventh hour attempt to retrieve the situation; he advocated Derry should travel as planned to Brussels for the November 23 first leg. If no agreement with the IFA could be reached then Derry could pull out of the second leg at that stage having completed their obligations to Anderlecht. Steppe also promised they would “look sympathetically” at reimbursing Derry’s travel expenses if they lost out financially with no home game.
Derry opted to play the first leg. Players, officials and supporters were given the red carpet treatment, the generosity and hospitality overwhelmed them. That is where the Belgians drew the line for on the playing pitch they totally outclassed Derry 9-0 before 30,000 fans at the Astrid Stadium.
Curran’s official history records: “Anderlecht, moving like jet-propelled white wraiths, not only wrote the finish to Derry’s aspirations but illustrated with grim clarity and merciless efficiency, the huge gap between Irish League standards and the norm at the top level.”
Although the background was not conducive to entering such a high-profile match Derry had a highly competent experienced side on parade that night: Connor; Blake, Cathcart Wood, Crosland Wood, Wright, Doherty, Coyle, Wilson, Fullerton. Yes, that is my good friend, our Jackie BBC sportscaster, singer and scintillating outside left of yesteryear!
Within minutes of the final whistle Derry announced they were forfeiting the second leg. They had enough of the Brandywell farce and decided to call it a day. So Derry’s European era as an Irish League club ended. A year earlier they lost 5-0 on aggregate (0-3, 0-2) to Steaua Bucharest, the Romanian Army side, and there was never any likelihood of an upset in either leg although the trip to Romania by chartered aircraft was a laugh a minute and to this day many wonderful stories are related by those who accompanied the Candystripes.
Derry, of course, has made quite an impact in European football since operating under the League of Ireland banner with home matches at Brandywell, too. What has been their ultimate achievement?
In the opinion of Arthur Duffy, current football correspondent of The Journal, that happened in 2006 when manager Stephen Kenny’s side had a 2-0 aggregate win against IFK Gothenburg (Sweden) a giant scalp, followed by a 7-3 aggregate (5-1, 2-2) success over Gretna before losing 2-0 on aggregate (0-0, 0-2) to Paris St Germain when hundreds of Derry fans made their presence felt in the French capital to earn plaudits from UEFA for their behaviour. It is generally recognised that was their ultimate performance.
Memorable nights —all part of the fascinating story that is Derry City and Brandywell.