If I was to tell you that El Hadji Diouf’s Serbian ex-agent is a club legend at a local Irish side, would you believe me? The reason I ask is because it’s true, despite how strange it may sound. Alex Krstic graced Derry City FC’s Brandywell Stadium with his scoring prowess in the late 80s, and was never forgotten. He became part of a revolutionary team, for the League of Ireland, in 1986 because of the make-up of the squad, the support they received, and the club’s mere presence in the league. This story begins though in October 1972, 14 years earlier, when the ‘Candystripes’ found themselves left in the wilderness.
In the late 60s and early 70s, Derry was firmly in the vice grip of the Troubles. The immediate surroundings of the Brandywell became the setting for some of the most infamous and violent events in the City’s history, including the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ and Bloody Sunday.
Coupled with increasing disturbances in the stadium itself, particularly when playing Belfast team Linfield, the Irish Football Association made the decision that Derry City would no longer be permitted to play their home games in their own stadium. Home fixtures were now to be held in Coleraine, a town over 30 miles away from Derry. This move was to prove devastating to the club. Attendances dropped and revenues slowed, which was entirely unsurprising considering that such a regular trip would be deemed a luxury at the time (not to mention the significant presence of Army checkpoints along the way).
As a result, the team’s directors decided this situation was unsustainable and on the 13th of October 1972, the Candystripes withdrew from the Irish Football League. Derry City FC became a club with its eye focused exclusively on junior football, for now.
In the years following 1972, the club’s directors including Robert Ferris, a local businessman, were still seeking re-admission into the Irish Football league annually. Alternatives were offered to the previous situation, including playing their games in the Waterside area of the city, but the applications were consistently unsuccessful. An increasing appetite for the return of senior football from a population starved of the beautiful game was beginning to put pressure on the club. Robert Ferris himself alluded to this when he told Teddy Jamieson,
“We were all trying to get football back on the road again, but people thought we were doing nothing.”
It wasn’t until a new course of action was sought in 1984, that things would start to take a turn for the better. On the 28th of March 1984, Derry City FC made their application to the League of Ireland, the national league of the Republic of Ireland. If successful, they would become the only team from Northern Ireland in the entire league system, which was governed by the Football Association of Ireland.
A few months later, club Secretary Eddie Mahon, Treasurer Terry Harkin and Manager Tony O’Doherty met with FAI officials and senior political figures in Dublin to discuss the application in person, and received explicit support from the Mayor of Dublin, Michael Keating, for their cause. It was later agreed that providing both the IFA and FIFA gave their consent for City to alter their football association allegiance, they would be accepted into the League of Ireland. This consent was forthcoming, and in November 1984, it was announced that Derry City FC would officially be entered into the newly created First Division in 1985. It was in this year that the Carnival of the Candystripes began to take shape.
Within just a year, City had won their first trophy since their rebirth, by taking the League of Ireland First Division Shield. One of the main drivers fuelling the attempts of Robert Ferris, and the other club directors to re-enter the IFA system, was the imminent threat of a local talent drain. In other words, skilful local players would be forced to travel to other cities to gain senior first team football, or simply neglect their talent if they were unable to do so.
However, the squad that took to the pitch in the Sligo Showgrounds in April 1986, for the second leg of the shield, had an added international feel. Lining up alongside the local players were, Stuart Gauld from Edinburgh (who warmed up for the game in a kilt), the Brazilian Nelson Da Silva, Jose Mukendi from Zaire and the star of the game, the South African Owen Da Gama.
Da Gama scored a hat trick in that match, including a penalty that was immediately met with a pitch invasion by the Derry fans. It was in the following season that Alex Krstic joined the party, achieving top scorer in the First Division with 18 goals, and helping the Candystripes secure promotion to the League of Ireland Premier Division for the first time.
The level of skill on display from the new signings was unprecedented in both divisions of the League of Ireland, and their presence made a trip to, or visits from, Derry that little bit more exciting for southern fans. Along with the fact that City was the only team from across the border, their matches had a certain exotic factor to them.
In the 1989-1990 season, only four years after joining the League of Ireland, Derry City became the first Irish team to win a domestic treble, by winning the League title, the League cup and the FAI cup. This was achieved with a team composed of a blend of the international signings mentioned, with local players such as Liam Coyle and Jonathan Speak. Coyle himself would go on to become a hero among City fans, and many believe that were it not for injury issues, he would have made it as a star in English football.
Throughout the 80s, the revival of the Candystripes provided a massive lift to the city itself. As Noel King, who managed Derry at the time (and would later go on to manage the Republic of Ireland, among others), has said,
“It was a soccer town so the return of football brought relief, satisfaction, hope. That may sound dramatic now but it is genuine. It was a truly great time.”
Nothing proves the truth of this statement more than the level of support which the team received, both home and away. Other teams in the league would be met with, what were quite literally, convoys of Derry fans travelling to see their team play. Local bars each arranged their own buses and they were easily filled, no matter who the opposition was. A local saying around this time, as recalled by Jim Roddy, was “…the last person out of Derry, please turn off the lights.” Eamonn McCann, a local political activist and journalist wrote the following in Hot Press, which further demonstrates the sheer volume of fans that the opposition would be met with,
“From Monaghan to Dundalk the fan-traffic grows steadily heavier until we arrive in the town as part of a gaudy red-and-white caravan, flags bedecked, and horns blazing.”
This invasion of fans was not seen as a negative by opposing fans however, and was entirely embraced, as it added to the atmosphere of the game. Indeed, I can recall being told once during an away trip to Dundalk, that Derry fans are the only ones, apart from Dundalk fans themselves, allowed into the social club at Oriel Park (the truth of this statement is up for debate though, considering how many pints deep the man who told me this was).
Since the treble winning season, Derry City have managed to repeat their title success only once, winning it again in the 1996-1997 season. The club has also been plagued by significant financial troubles, almost going bankrupt in 2000, and being dissolved in 2009 due to issues with player contracts, only to reform and enter the First Division in 2010. Despite this, they immediately played their way to promotion back to the Premier Division in 2011, and have carved out an identity for themselves as cup specialists, winning the League and FAI cups, ten and five times respectively.
The team has even found some success in Europe, where they maintain a presence almost every season. Up until this point though, they’ve been unable to progress further than in 2004, when they reached the first round and PSG got in their way. Despite holding the Les Rouge-et-Bleu to a 0-0 draw in the Brandywell, they proved too strong in the second leg, when they lost 2-0 in Paris.
This coming Sunday, the 2nd of November 2014, the Candystripes will once again be present at the final of the FAI Cup and led by Barry Molloy, the squad will look to continue their cup success.
One thing is for certain, although attendances have dropped in recent times, the Aviva stadium will be met with a huge Derry contingent. Cup final trips have proven to be a special date on the calendar, held with a certain reverence by even the most casual of fans looking to continue the legacy of the Carnival of the Candystripes of old. Buses will be filled, and supporters clubs such as Brandywell Pride, the Jungle Side Boys and QUBDCFCSC (Queen’s University Belfast Derry City Supporters Club) will lead the chants.
Ultimately, the players will be looking to solidify their place in the history of the club’s success, beside Da Gama, Krstic and local cult heroes such as Paddy McCourt (also known as the Derry Pele) and Ciaran Martyn. I don’t know if it will top the, now viral, cup team photo though.
By Adam Harkens
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona