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Derry City FC - A Concise History
Eleven years after their creation, Derry Celtic were voted out of senior soccer in Ireland in 1913. This left the city without a senior team, a situation which was to last for some time, a period which was lengthened due to the First World War, the Easter Rising, and the partition of Ireland.
The division of the country lead to the creation of two football leagues when the clubs south of the border broke away from the Irish Football Association and Irish League to form the Free State Football Association and Free State League. The people of Derry were irate that a city the size of Derry did not have a senior team, especially when near neighbours Coleraine with only a quarter the population of Derry had been elected to the Irish League in the mid-twenties.
In 1928, a group of football fans got together to rectify this situation and decided that the name Derry Celtic would not satisfy their cross-community, non-sectarian requirements so they settled on the name Derry City. On May 9th 1928, Derry City affiliated to the North-West Football Association and, in a link with the past, Norman McClure son of a Derry Celtic Director, was appointed Club Secretary. On 25th May 1928, William Arthur led a delegation to a meeting of the Irish Senior Leagues Committee to attempt to secure Derry’s senior status.
Along with Crusaders and Brantwood, Derry City’s application was rejected. The Belfast clubs were not considered to be of senior quality, and Derry City’s application, in true Derry style, was received two days after the deadline.
The Directors returned to Derry disappointed but determined. The next year saw them preparing for the inevitable move from amateur to senior status – their confidence buoyed by the fact that after they failed to apply by the requisite deadline, a motion at the ISLC to waive the deadline was only defeated by 17 votes to 15. Derryman and President of the IFA, Captain James Wilton, announced on 30th May 1929 that he felt confident that Derry City would be admitted to the Irish League the following night.
During the final of the McAlinden Cup being played between Derry Celtic and Richmond in the Brandywell on Friday 31st May 1929, the announcement that Derry City had achieved senior status was greeted with a chorus of cheers and applause. Queen’s Island were out, Derry City were in.
Joe McCleery, a native of the city, was enticed from his managerial post in Dundalk to become Derry’s first manager and he quickly signed Fred Mason from Dundalk. The big Birmingham-born player settled well in the team and the city, and eventually established Mason’s bar in Magazine Street after his playing career. Plans to purchase a pitch ran aground due to the tight timescales and so the City Corporation was approached for the use of the Brandywell which had been used for football up until the end of the 19th century. This began an association between the club and the ground which has survived until the present day, and the club are still operating under the constraints of the Honourable The Irish Society charter limitations which declare that the Brandywell must be available for the recreation of the community.
On 22nd August 1929 Derry City ran on to the Brandywell turf for the first time in claret and blue shirts with white shorts, and McCleery’s full-time professionals lead Glentoran 1-0 at half-time with a goal from Peter Burke, a recent recruit from the Free State Army. The attendance of 7,500 saw Derry lose that lead in the second-half and leave the pitch without any points after Glentoran’s second-half brace. Their trip to Portadown resulted in Derry’s first hat-trick in senior football through Sammy Curran, but they still managed to lose 6-5 in an enthralling game. Their first point in senior football came soon after in a 1-1 draw in the Brandywell against Ballymena; and a crowd of 12,000 saw Derry get their first Cup win when they beat the dominant Linfield side 3-1 in the Gold Cup. On 7th September the Brandywell club gained their first League victory with a 3-2 victory over Newry in the Co. Down club’s backyard. It wasn’t until 5th October 1929 that the Brandywell faithful witnessed Derry’s first League victory on home turf when Derry beat Cliftonville 4-3. The ended the season in fifth place, and came third in the City Cup – not bad for their first season.
But it wasn’t an easy start for the Foylesiders and it certainly wasn’t going to be an easy ride at any stage in the Irish League. The following year, McCleery signed Derry’s first legend. Jimmy Kelly, born in Ballybofey, schooled in the Derry & District FA, and polished in the Anfield training grounds returned to Derry and played his first game on 26th October 1930 against Linfield at Windsor – a baptism of fire if ever there was one. It took him four matches to get on the scoresheet. That goal against Glenavon was the first of 380 for Derry City in a career spanning almost 21 years. During that time he was capped by the IFA, the Free State FA, the Irish League, and the League of Ireland. His arrival though did not inspire Derry who ended the League campaign in seventh place.
The next season saw a brief upturn in their fortunes, which could very well have been directly related to Derry’s signing of the club’s second legend. E.D.R. Shearer pulled on the shirt in the Coleraine Showgrounds and never looked back in a career spanning 8 seasons. With three games of the 1931/32 season remaining Derry were top of the table, level with Glentoran, but managed to lose all three games and ended up in fourth place. It was gutting to end the season in such a way, especially as they’d scored 107 goals and so rumours of McCleery’s demise began to circulate. The Directors also decided to introduce Derry’s second strip at the end of the season – white shirts and black shorts.
In June 1932, McCleery was sacked after his most successful season and Billy Gillespie was given the nod as his replacement after 20 years at Sheffield United. Gillespie did not have a great start and only came fourth again in 1933. This was the second year in which ground purchase was mentioned. The Board decided not to buy Bond’s Field in the Waterside as it was too far away from the fanbase; they had first option on Derry Celtic’s old ground, Celtic Park, but hesitated on a decision and the GAA bought it ten years later; and they decided not to buy Meenan Park for £1,500. If the Board had been more assertive in 1933, we would not have the problems with capacity etc we are having in 2006. In 1934 they came ninth and so the dismissal of McCleery was looking less like a brilliant idea by the season.
Shortly before the 1934/35 season the Directors decided on another change of strip. They decided on the red & white striped shirts and black shorts of Sheffield United as a tribute to Billy Gillespie. This was to be the strip that was to become synonymous with Derry City for the next seventy years. The only break being the gold & black of Wolves which they wore in the late 50s and, if you’re being technical, the white shorts they mostly wore on their rebirth in 1985. It was in the Candystriped top that Derry lifted their first major trophy. Having won the North-West Senior Cup in 1931/32, 1932/33, and 1933/34 they went a step further and in front of 9,000 at Brandywell, Hugh Carlyle lifted the Dunville Cup for Derry City as winners of the City Cup by a clear 5 points over 12 games.
Derry were to repeat this feat in 1937 but it was not until 12 years after that that they were to lift another major trophy. In 1949 they won the IFA Cup for the first time. In 1947/48 the Directors seriously considered Derry’s future as the clubs had entered a demise in the previous decade and were no longer feared. Willie Ross had a bit of money to spend after the sale of Eddie Crossan and John Feeney resulted in an annual profit of £2,000 – a figure most Irish clubs would jump at in today’s world of red bank balances.
Derry were reduced to 10 men in the final at Windsor Park on April 16th 1949 when Kelly was stretchered off. After Peacock put Glentoran in front, Hugh Colvan and Matt Doherty put Derry ahead. The team doctor cured Kelly’s concussion and the 10,000 Derry supporters roared him back on to the field of play 15 minutes after he’d been carried off. Barney Cannon’s goal seven minutes from time meant that the 27,000 in attendance saw the IFA Cup going Derry for the first time.
A few years of failure resulted in apathy in the city and by the time another legend was signed in January 1954, memories of the 1949 silverware had gone. Even in 1954 they came third from bottom but a shining light was Delaney formerly of Glasgow Celtic, Manchester United, Scotland, and, in the early days of 1954, Falkirk. Derry’s club doctor, Desmond Sidebottom heard he wanted to settle in Ireland so Derry pounced and secured one of the greatest players ever to play on Irish soil. That year Derry met the men from east Belfast who were favourites just as they’d been in 1949. The first final ended in a 2-2 draw; the second was a scoreless draw; and the third final with a crowd of 28,000 saw Derry win 1-0 with a Con O’Neill strike from a Delaney assist. At the final whistle the players rushed to celebrate with Delaney but, the Scot, ran the length of the field to celebrate with and thank Charlie Heffron in the Derry goal who had thwarted the Glens time and time again. The three finals saw 93,000 attend – a figure unimaginable in today’s domestic Irish soccer.
In the late 50s Derry lost legends Jobby Crossan to Coleraine after he had turned down Nottingham Forest, Jim McLaughlin to Birmingham City, and Matt Doherty Jnr to Glentoran; but brought in Fay Coyle from Coleraine. In 1964 Derry City lifted the Gold Cup and the IFA Cup once again. Another legend was signed on 30th June 1934 - Belfastman Jimmy McGeough came to Derry from Stockport County. Matt Doherty returned and yet another legend, Willie Curran, made his debut that year. Derry set off on an unbeaten run of 47 games that year that was to span two seasons.
Steaua Bucharest beat Derry 5-1 on aggregate in the European Cup-Winners Cup the following year but they made up for it by becoming the Irish League Champions for the only time in their history. In April 1964 a 5-1 victory over Ards in the Brandywell saw 34-goal captain, Fay Coyle, lift the League Championship trophy in front of a packed Brandywell. Within weeks, Dougie Wood was named ‘Northern Ireland Player of the Year’ and Derry performed admirably in a 3-1 defeat to a virtual Spanish national team in Madrid’s Vicente Calderon.
The following season, Derry became the first Irish League team to win a European tie over two legs by beating FK Lynn when, after losing 5-3 in the Oslo, they won 8-6 on aggregate. The second round was not to come to Brandywell as the IFA banned the ground, largely because Derry refused to travel to Belfast to play the tie and why should they have? Derry told the IFA that if they didn’t lift the ban they wouldn’t play and represent the Irish League in Europe. Anderlecht pleaded with Derry to play the tie and so Derry travelled to Belgium and were hammered 9-0. The second leg was never played and relations between the Irish League and Derry never improved.
By the early 1970s the Irish League and the IFA had been chipping away at Derry and used the excuse of unrest in Northern Ireland to force Derry to play their home matches in Coleraine. There was of course unrest in Belfast too but Windsor Park, The Oval, etc were not brought into question. Portadown put a proposal to go back to playing at Brandywell, and Bangor, Cliftonville, Ballymena United, and Derry City voted in favour of that motion. Crusaders, Ards, Glenavon, Glentoran, Distillery, and Linfield all voted against. Coleraine abstained and so with a 1 vote minority just like Derry Celtic in 1913, Derry City were doomed. The 40-minute journey to ‘home’ games reduced the Derry crowd considerably so gate receipts dropped dangerously low and so Derry could no longer sustain themselves. The Irish League and the IFA eventually got what they had been orchestrating on Friday 13th October 1972 when Derry withdrew from senior football. The Directors hoped that the door would open soon again to the Irish League but would not return until they were permitted to play in the Brandywell again.
Derry City plied their trade in the local Saturday Morning League to keep the club alive until the mid-80s when people such as one of the city’s greatest ever players, forward maestro Terry Harkin, local legend Tony O’Doherty, Eamon McLaughlin, and Eddie Mahon secured senior status once again for Derry City with an election to the League of Ireland First Division in May 1985. It wasn’t as easy as that though as the IFA and the Irish League saw their chance to thwart Derry City once again. IFA President and FIFA vice-president, Harry Cavan, who had been instrumental in banning the Brandywell from being used for European competition in 1964, said that FIFA rules did not permit Derry crossing the border. In Dublin people were not too sure about admitting a club from a city with a recent history of political problems but Fran Fields backed Derry’s application 100% and Glentoran Chairman John Crossen was a prominent supporter of Derry’s move as he felt that the IFA should no longer act as they had been. Other people within the Irish League were also in favour of Derry’s move as they no longer wanted to have to deal with Derry’s annual application for re-election to the Irish League.
The Irish League and the League of Ireland met in Dundalk in August 1984 and agreed to talk again. This meeting came shortly after Derry FC hosted Shamrock Rovers in the Brandywell in front of 4,000 fans. Eventually the IFA relented but, knowing that other clubs would want to follow Derry south of the border, they said that they would give permission “only to Derry City football club” to apply to join the LoI. In October 1984 Derry FC said that “in the interests of football” they would withdraw their application, and so Derry City had no more hurdles to overcome.
The city responded in their thousands. Jim Crossan appointed Terry Kelly team captain and he led Derry City to a 3-1 League Cup victory over Premier Division side Home Farm in front of an 8,000-strong red & white army. Crossan’s quick departure allowed new manager Noel King to bring worldly flair to Brandywell in the form of Brazilian Da Silva and South African Da Gama. A throwback to Derry’s Irish League days saw Declan McDowell solidify the defence and Kevin Mahon worked wonders on the wing. With another local, Tony O’Doherty in midfield Derry started as they intended to go on by clinching the Shield in their first year back in senior football after a 6-1 aggregate victory over Longford Town.
Within a year of that victory they left Shelbourne in their wake as they won the First Division. Cup final defeat in 1988 to Dundalk left the team hungry and the most successful manager in the history of the LoI, Derryman Jim McLaughlin, brought the League Championship, the League Cup, and the FAI Cup to Brandywell in the 1988/89 season.
Since then, Derry have only won the League Championship once (1996/97) but have been runners-up on several occasions. They have won the FAI Cup on four occasions (1989, 1995, 2002 and 2006). Derry have had much greater success in the League Cup having won it in 1988, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1999, 2005, and most recently a nine-man Derry team brushed aside Shelbourne, in a 3-0 penalty shoot-out victory in the Brandywell.by Chalkie (2006)