Derry City in Europe: Awakening a 'sleeping giant' in Gothenburg
“The Gothenburg players were thinking an Irish team wouldn’t be any great shakes but there a sleeping giant was stirring . . .”
SEAN HARGAN will be forever remembered for his role in Derry City’s giant-killing in Gothenburg which sparked a magical 2006 UEFA Cup run and the awakening of a ‘sleeping giant’ of Irish football.
Stephen Kenny had transformed the Brandywell club, taking them from the brink of relegation to title contenders in the space of two seasons.
He instilled a belief which would be the foundation for one of the most notable results in Irish football history on July 13th, 2006 as Derry clinched a famous first away win in Europe at the Gamla Ullevi Stadium.
While the Swedish club weren’t the force they once were, they had twice won the UEFA Cup and produced a host of Swedish internationals, including IFK Gothenburg skipper, Niclas Alexandersson who was part of the World Cup campaign in Germany that same summer.
It was supposed to be a formality for the Swedes but it proved to be the start of one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of Derry City Football Club, a period which captured the imagination of the entire city and beyond.
At the 11th time of asking Derry finally won on the continent and for the second time in its history dumped Scandinavian opposition out of European competition.
Hargan had won a league championship with his hometown club in 1997, three FAI Cups and five League Cups during 13 years of unbroken service but his lasting legacy was arguably that goal against the mighty Gothenburg.
“It’s kind of haunted me ever since,” laughs ‘Hargy’. “They were great times to be part of the club.”
Derry, who were agonisingly pipped to the league title by Cork the previous season, returned to Europe for the first time in three years but not even the most optimistic City fan expected them to progress when paired with the Swedish giants.
Yet thanks to the motivational skills and meticulous planning from current Ireland manager, Kenny, Derry went into battle full of confidence.
“We had such a good team. The belief and hunger in that team was something else,” explains the full-back.
“We had watched DVDs of them and I don’t know if ‘Kenso’ (Kenny) picked all their worst performances ever but when we watched them we all felt we had a chance.
“He was smart. I would say he got DVDs from their reserve team but they didn’t look great in them and that spurred us on.
“There were no big egos in the team and everyone busted themselves for each other. The skilful players did all their stuff and the men in the trenches did what they had to do to make it work.”
The foundations for that season’s unprecedented European success was built on the performances of the previous season when Kenny had transformed the fortunes of the club.
“Kenny totally turned the club around,” added City’s legendary left-back. “He brought so much professionalism.
“He was meticulous in his detail about the opposition and even our set-pieces. He would’ve kept doing set-pieces until they were spot on and everyone knew what they were doing.
“You could maybe take 20 corners from each side until it actually came off. And it paid off for him in the end up.”
It certainly did. Inside the historic Ullevi Stadium, Kevin Deery floated the ball into the near post where ‘Hargy’ rose unopposed to bury his header into the Gothenburg net and give Derry an 81st minute lead they would take home to Foyleside.
“Pizza (Peter Hutton) nearly scored just before that and Killian Brennan hit the crossbar,” recalls Hargy who had been converted from a centre forward to a left back during his time at the club.
“We had practised corners where someone blocked my marker and I went to the front post. Thankfully ‘Deerso’ put in a wonder ball and I just met it well and the rest is history as they say.”
City boss Kenny was a master of motivation and the Swedes offered him a golden opportunity to stir up his troops when they felt their Irish opposition were undeserving of media attention on the night. It was a slight which added fuel to the Foylesiders’ fire.
Hargy’s famous goal was fortuitously caught on a travelling fans’ phone camera and while the quality is poor, it captures the moment perfectly.
“I was just glad that someone actually captured my goal on video because there was no real press there or cameras other than Artie Duffy (Derry Journal) and Richie Kelly (BBC Radio Foyle),” said the Top of the Hill native.
“I think Kevin Moore (Maiden City Images) got a picture of it too.
“They were very lax on it, with no press showing up we felt it was a bit disrespectful. The same thing happened at Gretna when their manager didn’t give us a hope and ‘Kenso’ was all over it. People were ready to run through a wall even before they got out onto the pitch.
“Sometimes when that happens, when people show you disrespect, it gives you that edge to prove people wrong.
“There was no fear. We didn’t fear any team, even those games which came after Gothenburg. Everyone had great belief in themselves which stems from the staff - ‘Kenso’, Decky Devine and Heggsy (Paul Hegarty) - and filtered through the team.”
Once the ball hit the back of the net in Gothenburg, Gary Beckett went to work on a well rehearsed re-enactment of Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt on Marco Materazzi at that summer’s World Cup.
“I said if anyone scored we would do the Zidane celebration and Baz (Barry Molloy) was about to do it,” recalls Beckett. “I said ‘f**k off ‘Baz’ this was my idea’ and I headbutted ‘Hargy’ on the chest and down he went like a tonne of bricks.”
“We had it planned out,” confirmed Hargy. “Beckett came in with the head and I went down but I think it was kind of missed because of the whole furore of the goal going in and everyone was jumping around but we did do it.”
Protecting a 1-0 lead going into the return tie at Brandywell two weeks’ later, Derry were far from home and hosed and were expecting a Gothenburg backlash. And there was no change in attitudes from the supremely confident Swedes.
In fact, stories appeared in the press claiming that Alexandersson had announced he was looking forward to a short holiday in Ireland for the second leg - another motivational tool for Kenny if any was needed.
What ensued was another remarkable performance as Derry stunned the former European powerhouse, Stephen O’Flynn bravely tucking his penalty into the corner of the net after striker George Mourad handled inside the area.
“Hitting the penalty in the Brandywell was amazing and, for me, it was a chance to grab another goal,” said O’Flynn. “I look back and think if I scored the one against UCD a few weeks later in the league how things could have been different at the end of season.
“To see and hear people still talk about it, I’m grateful I was apart of such an amazing club at that time. The joy it brought to people about the city was amazing! Derry and it’s people has given me something special over the years and it’s always good to reflect on what was a great time on and off the pitch,” added the Cork man.
The Candy Stripes had embarked boldly onto the European stage and became household names in the process.
“There was a bit of concern that they might have taken us too lightly in the first leg and were going to respond in the second but I think the ship had already sailed for them because we had the belief and hunger then. We had a 1-0 lead and we weren’t letting go. If we could hold them out we were into the next round.
“And in a packed Brandywell nobody was pulling out of anything,” said Hargan.
“So for ‘Flynner’ to step up to hit what was a massive, massive penalty - you needed nerves of steel to put it in the onion bag. There was real pressure there!
“One of their players said it was like a summer holiday for them and all our fans had the beach balls but they went back with their tails between their legs.”
Derry players joined hands and ran towards the City Faithful in the South End Park stand to perform Jurgen Klinsmann’s infamous dive celebration as a 2-0 aggregate defeat sent Gothenburg packing from the tournament.
It was just the start of a memorable run for the League of Ireland minnows who were growing in reputation and confidence.
“It was such a great time to be about the club. What came after it, that run was unreal but we had so many good players. The strength and depth in the squad and players who filled in for each other all kept to the same standards.
“Kenso was very good at putting out a team he thought would match up with the opposition players. It wasn’t always about the quickness of Farrenso (Mark Farren) or the skill of Paddy (McCourt). He might just have needed someone else in the middle of the park to do something else for him.
“He was great at mixing the team up and keeping people hungry. I mean nobody was safe if you had Farren and McCourt on the bench. Even though I was there for 12 or 13 years, you were always on your toes as he had new people all the time and the fear was there that you would lose your spot.
“I always felt that when you left Derry you were on a downward slope unless you went to England.
“There was no sentiment at all with Kenso, however. I remember my last ever game for Derry and I wasn’t even in the squad in the cup final so there was never ever any sentiment!”
The UEFA Cup first round victory and the results which followed that year perhaps gave Irish clubs the confidence to be successful in Europe.
It was a fantastic scalp to take and arguably one of the club’s and Irish football’s finest victories. That moment on the west coast of Sweden was one of Hargan’s most cherished memories in a City shirt.
“We won a league title, a couple of FAI Cups, had a couple of losses in finals and five or six league cup wins.
“When you lose the league on the last day of the season twice it’s a heart-breaker, so you have to enjoy the good times when they’re there because they don’t come around too often.
“The goal out there is definitely one of my best memories and people still talk about it. But the championship team in 96/97 was massive for me. It was my first full season at the club and I thought this was great. It must be like this all the time but we’ve never won one since.
“The European run in ‘06 though was the big one and one everyone remembers.”
And Derry went on to prove the result was no fluke as the next day they were paired with Scottish Cup runners-up.
It’s there we pick up Derry City ‘European Dance’ next week!