History will be made at Brandywell Stadium on Saturday afternoon as the whistle is blown for the first Irish League football match to be played there in almost 50 years.
Institute FC are beginning a new tenancy at Derry’s municipal stadium after flooding last year ruined their Drumahoe home. It will be another small, but important step, towards normality for our city to have teams and supporters from staunchly unionist backgrounds regularly travelling to the cityside of Derry for the simple act of playing and watching a football match.
On the evening before Institute grace the Brandywell pitch, Derry City FC will also play there - hosting Sligo Rovers in a League of Ireland fixture. The ‘Candy Stripes’ are part of a select group of clubs in world football which are based in one footballing and political jurisdiction (Northern Ireland) whilst playing their matches in another (the Republic of Ireland). Brandywell Stadium had a central role in the controversy which led to the club being forced out of the Irish league back in 1972 and was also the reason given for repeatedly denying re-admission in the years that followed. So, the return of Irish League football to Brandywell for the first time in almost half a century is a genuinely historic moment and testimony to the changed times we live in today.
Institute’s move to the Brandywell also makes our city unique in European (and probably world) football for another reason. We are now the only city where you can watch two teams from two different footballing and political jurisdictions play in the top flight leagues of two different countries in the same city and stadium. And all within 24 hours of each other – thanks to a number of Institute home games being scheduled for the day after Derry City play. This unique fact isn’t just a feather in our city’s cap – it also creates an opportunity to market Derry as a location for football tourism.
It may sound far-fetched to suggest that we could attract people from far and wide to watch football here. Okay, we’re not exactly Barcelona, Manchester or Munich but not everyone with a passion for the game is interested solely in seeing its big, glamour clubs.
Every weekend a sizeable sub-culture of people from Britain and elsewhere actively bypass the big clubs in search of a more unique and authentic footballing experience - travelling to watch smaller, less glamorous teams play in less obvious locations. An entire cottage industry has grown up around this - spanning websites, magazines, books and organised trips. One such example is the glossy magazine, ‘Football Weekends’, a monthly publication which showcases teams and footballing cities in the UK and Europe aimed at those keen on exploring new destinations through their favourite sport. Their current (August) issue contains an in-depth 11 page feature on Derry City, Institute and our city in general (disclosure - I wrote the article). And one of the things which attracted that magazine to include Derry in the first place was our unique footballing status. We do, indeed, have something special and different to offer the world of football tourism and we should make the most of it while we can.
People travelling to Derry to watch football is, of course, nothing new. For years, away fans have been visiting us from across Ireland to watch their teams take on Derry City or Institute. The numbers involved are usually small – not aided by Friday evening fixtures requiring time off work to get here for Derry games. They still come, however, and some stay overnight to enjoy our city and contribute to our economy. Given Derry’s growing reputation as a city-break destination, and the opportunity we offer to watch two top-flight football matches in the one weekend, perhaps Visit Derry should be marketing us to fans of well-supported Irish clubs who could be persuaded to make a weekend out of a game here? If only 5% of Cork City’s average home crowd could be persuaded to come to Derry once a season, that would amount to 250 extra visitors for our hotels, bars and restaurants on a single night. And if they spent on average £200 each whilst here, that would put £50,000 extra into our economy from just one night.
It would certainly be worth testing the water with a dedicated promotion aimed at fans of certain clubs to see how many could be persuaded to build a trip here around football (they could easily be reached for little cost through fan websites, programmes etc). Likewise with Institute. The bigger teams in Northern Ireland can bring hundreds to away fixtures – but usually only for a few hours.
Through a bit of marketing, some could, hopefully, be persuaded to turn their three hour flying visit into an overnight stay instead. The Irish League operates on a winter season, so special offers could entice visiting fans to help fill our hotels across the quieter months.
After all - they’re coming here to watch football anyway, so we should encourage as many as possible to stay. It’s definitely something that Visit Derry and our local hospitality sector should consider.
A novel way to encourage visiting fans from both League of Ireland and Irish League clubs to stay overnight could be for our two local clubs to introduce special joint tickets – offering discounted entry into an Institute match for anyone who attends a Derry City game the night before, and vice-versa. This would be of interest to local football fans as well as both visiting supporters and general football tourists and would help position our city as a football destination in its own right. Plus it would be yet another thing to make our city unique within football.
It’s all too easy to under-appreciate the power that football has to build a civic profile. Derry City’s European fixtures have, in the past, been an obvious example of the game drawing new overseas visitors here – though the small capacity of the Brandywell severely limits the number that can be accommodated.
When Derry City hosted Paris Saint Germain over a decade ago, for example, our city could have been filled with French fans had the stadium allowed more than a couple of hundred to attend. This represented a huge opportunity lost, as each extra visitor could have evangelised about Derry upon their return home. Every time Derry City qualifies for Europe, awareness of our town is automatically increased right across the continent. If you accept that people are unlikely to visit or invest in somewhere they’ve never heard of, then having our clubs compete in Europe should be viewed as a civic marketing exercise. You only need to consider the global profile that unfashionable towns like Leeds or Leicester have to understand the difference that football can make. It sometimes feels like the ‘powers-that-be’ here don’t fully appreciate the promotional benefit of having successful football clubs.
Whether they be visiting away fans or curious overseas visitors, Derry has a unique offering to those who are interested in travelling to watch football.
With an international magazine recognising and promoting our potential in this area, is it time that we took the contribution that sport can make to our profile and economy more seriously here.
Steve Bradley is a regeneration consultant and commentator from Derry. He can be followed on Twitter at: @Bradley_Steve