Carnival of the ‘Candy Stripes’

Treble winners
Treble winners

IF I was to inform you that El Hadji Diouf’s Serbian ex-agent is a Derry City Football Club legend, would you believe me?

The reason I ask is because it’s true, despite how strange it may sound.

Aleksandar Krstic graced Derry City’s Brandywell Stadium with his scoring prowess in the late 1980s and was never forgotten having arrived from French, US Orleans club, scoring 18 goals in 17 appearances.

He became part of a revolutionary team, for the League of Ireland, in 1986 because of the cosmopolitan make-up of the squad; the support it received, and the club’s mere presence in the League of Ireland despite residing in the jurisdiction of the Irish League.

However, this story begins in October, 1972, 14 years earlier, when the ‘Candy Stripes’ found themselves left in the wilderness.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Derry was firmly in the vice-grip of the “Troubles” in N. Ireland.

And not far from the Brandywell area was 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.

With the threat of increasing disturbances in the stadium itself, particularly when playing Protestant clubs, the Irish Football Association made the decision that Derry City would no longer be permitted to play their home games in their own stadium.

That decision followed the highly publicised burning of the Ballymena United team coach following an Irish League game.

Home fixtures were now to be staged in Coleraine, a town over 30 miles away and that particular move fashioned disaster for the club.

Predictably, attendances dropped to an all time low with vital revenue drying up and Derry City F.C. was in difficulty.

As a result, the team’s directors decided this situation was unsustainable and on October 13th 1972, the “Candy Stripes” withdrew from the Irish League and Derry City FC became a club with its eye focused exclusively on junior football.

In the years following 1972, the club’s directors including chairman, Robert Ferris, a local businessman, annually sought re-admission into the Irish League.

Alternative venues were offered to stage home fixtures, including playing their home games in the Waterside area of the city, but the applications were consistently turned down.

However, 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 the Press: “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 March 28th, 1984, Derry City made their application to the League of Ireland, the national league of the Republic 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 Candy Stripes” began to take shape.

Within just a year, City had won their first trophy since their rebirth, by claiming 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 wearing a kilt), Brazilian Nelson Da Silva and the star of the game, South African Owen Da Gama.

Da Gama netted a hat-trick in that match, including a penalty that was immediately followed by 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 and helping the club secure promotion to the League of Ireland Premier Division.

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.

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 1980s, the revival of the “Candy Stripes” 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: “Derry is a soccer town so the return of football brought relief, satisfaction and 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 at home and away.

The return to senior football after 13 years in the football wilderness proved to be a breath of fresh air for the League of Ireland.

Up until then, First Division teams would be met with convoys of Derry City fans travelling to watch their team play in unfashionable venues.

Local Derry pubs arranged their own buses for away games and they were regularly filled, no matter who the opposition was.

A local saying around this time, as recalled by a former club chairman, Jim Roddy, was “…the last person out of Derry, please turn out the lights!” which was headlined in the “Derry Journal” sports pages.

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 2006, when they defeated former UEFA Cup winners, Gothenburg - 1-0 home and away - before thrashing Socttish fairytale club, Gretna, 5-1 in Fir Park in Motherwell followed by a 2-2 result in the Brandywell.

Having progressed through the first and second qualifying rounds, Derry City then drew French aristocrats, Paris St-Germain, in the third qualifying round and an opportunity to progress to the first round stage of the UEFA Cup.

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 the Parc Des Princes in Paris.

So, this afternoon the “Candy Stripes” will once again be present at the final of the FAI Cup and led by team skipper, Barry Molloy, the squad will look to continue their F.A.I. 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 Candy Stripes” of old.

Buses will be filled, and supporters clubs such as Brandywell Pride, the Jungleside Boys and QUB DCFC SC (Queen’s University Belfast Derry City Supporters Club) will lead the chants.