DERRY City Football Club lost a link to its long history following the sad death of Harry “Digger” Smyth, in his native Belfast earlier this week. He was 83 years old.
And his passing, at his home in Merview Street (off North Queen Street), now leaves just three survivors of the “Candy Stripes” sensational Irish Cup victory back in 1954 when eventually getting the better of Glentoran after three games.
Born William Harry Smyth in April, 1928 – the same year the Brandywell club was founded - he was recognised a strong tackling wing-back in that famous City team, whose heroics brought the trophy back to the Brandywell after the marathon decider – that final fondly remembered by many Derry fans as the “Jimmy Delaney Final.”
The three remaining survivors of that team are goalkeeper Charlie Heffron, born in Belfast on August 13, 1927 - and living in Cushendall, County Antrim; winger, Arthur ‘Mousey’ Brady, born in Belfast on July 12, 1927 - and living in Hannahstown, County Antrim and the lone Derry-born player in the side, accomplished defender Willie Curran, born May 17, 1930, who resides in home City and is a regular attender at his beloved Brandywell to this day.
Having represented Linfield with great distinction, Smyth left the ‘Blues’ following a contractual dispite and went on to become one of Derry’s long serving players at that time, spending nine years with the Lone Moor Road club.
Smyth was born in the Shankill Road area of Belfast where he represented the Lower Shankill Boys’ Club team followed by a spell in the 36 Old Boys side which played in the Churches League. And while he was generally known by Irish League followers as “Digger” Smith, he insisted that his nickname was wrong.
Interviewed by legendary Irish sports journalist, Dennis O’Hara for his book “Candy Men of ’54,” Smyth claimed his nickname had been “Dyker” and while he didn’t know the reason for the nickname, “Digger” somehow developed from that, probably due to the fact that both names sounded alike.
“My nickname from I was a wee fella was ‘Dyker.’ I don’t know the reason for it, but it wasn’t
‘Digger,’ but I never bothered changing folk’s minds when I moved into senior football,” commented Smyth in the book.
In fact, he was present at the Derry launch of “Candy Men of ‘54” in the Delacroix Restaurant almost two years ago, pictured with Messrs. Heffron, Brady and Curran, his last visit to Foyleside.
He joined Linfield Swifts for the 1947/48 season aged 19 and in 1950, joined Linfield’s first-team squad where he was considered ‘a very tough tackling, no nonsense, wing-half.
Houston and Smyth would soon move on to win their second Irish Cup medal with Derry City. But Smyth was subsequently involved in a wages dispute with the “Blues” and was sent to see out his contract with Carrick Rangers in the then ‘B’ Division.
Smyth was spotted playing for Carrick by a Belfast-based Derry City scout and the Brandywell boss at the time, Matt Doherty, made an approach.
“I agreed to sign and I stayed for nine seasons at The Brandywell. I travelled up and down from Belfast to play in the matches. For training I went to Distillery’s ground at Grosvenor Park. Sometimes I did my training at Brantwood.
“My first season was in 1953/’54 when Derry won the Irish Cup in a second replay against Glentoran. But it also took two very difficult games to beat Linfield in the semi-final at Solitude which was packed tight on both occasions.”
Indeed, it was probably a difficult situation at first for Smyth when facing so many of his former Linfield colleagues in the 1954 Irish Cup semi-final showdowns at Solitude.
In the “Candy Men of ‘54” booked he commented: “The ‘Blues’ had exceptional players such as the late Tommy ‘The Duke’ Dickson; inside-forward Don McMillan, who moved to centre half when he became a wee bit slower on his feet, and goalkeeper Alex Russell, two years younger than me and living in Glengormley.”
And commenting on the 1954 final, “Digger” said: “It was a great win over Linfield, but it was also tough going against Glentoran, who had Danno Feeney from Derry playing in their team against us. The Glens also had great players such as Billy Neill, Sammy Ewing and Sammy Hughes.”
On Saturday April 24, 1954, an excited record crowd of 35,000 crammed into Windsor Park to create a tingling atmosphere. The gate of £4,570 was also a record and, ironically, it was the Derry-born Feeney, who levelled the game at 2-2 in the 71st minute to force a replay.
Five days later the teams returned to Windsor Park, on Thursday April 29, for where Derry keeper, Charlie Heffron stole the scoreless show with outstanding saves.
The second replay was staged again at Windsor Park, on May 12 and, in front of 28,000 paying customers, the three-match marathon ended with Con O’Neill emerging the trophy-winning hero with a goal in the 43rd minute as Heffron again produced world-class saves during the early stages of the game. Heffron praised Smyth, naming him the ‘Mr Reliable’ of the Derry City defence: “We enjoyed outstanding camaraderie in that 1954 team. Harry was an exceptional defender. Harry and Jimmy (Delaney) were generally quiet, reserved men. What great players both were. Harry, an awful nice man, was the best wing-half I ever played behind. Not only was ‘Digger’ a solid and utterly dependable wing-back, but also could play equally well at centre-half.”