Derry City in Europe: Eddie Mahon and the Bucharest trailblazers

EDDIE MAHON counts himself extremely fortunate to have boarded the chartered Shackelton aircraft carrying Derry City’s Irish Cup heroes on the club’s maiden European adventure, bound for Bucharest on September 1964.

Sunday, 7th June 2020, 3:02 pm
Derry City's Matt Doherty has a shot which is gathered cleanly by Steaua Bucharest keeper Dumitru Eremia during the second leg of the European Cup Winners' Cup tie at Brandywell Stadium.

Drawn against Romanian Army team, Steaua Bucharest in the Cup Winners’ Cup, Derry City’s Directors had contemplated replacing their rookie Cup winning goalkeeper with Manchester City’s legend, German, Bert Trautmann who had recently retired.

However, City boss, Willie Ross decided to keep faith with their man between the sticks who remarkably had just SIX appearances as a goalkeeper to his name before joining the Candy Stripes!

“There was talk among the directors of bringing him in just for the European Cup match,” explained Mahon. “But Willie Ross said ‘No way! Eddie got us here and he’s staying’. And then it turned out it was probably the best match I ever had for Derry!”

Derry City players and staff prepare to travel to Bucharest for the first leg in September 1964.

That decision proved an inspired one as Mahon, alongside forward, ‘Jimbo’ Crossan were hailed the ‘Heroes of Bucharest’ despite a 3-0 defeat in the Romanian capital - a scoreline which certainly didn’t tell the whole story.

It was the Carn native’s first trip abroad and one he would never forget as he recalls an interesting 10 hour plane journey which took them through Yugoslav airspace without authorisation as they came under fire by tracer bullets.

And he also explains how the team was greeted by Romania’s infamous Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu and how a chance meeting with a certain James Bond actor’s wife proved costly for one of his Derry City teammates.

As for the game itself, Derry returned from their first ever European competition at the ‘August 23rd Stadium’ with their reputations very much intact, if not enhanced, after proving more than a capable match for the Romanian outfit who were littered with internationals, including club legend and skipper, Gheorghe Constantin.

Derry City goalkeeper, Eddie Mahon has his passport at the ready prior to boarding the flight to Romania.

“A ‘courageous display’ for this City 11 made up of two full-time professionals and nine part-timers who upheld the prestige of the Irish League in heart-warming fashion.”

That’s how it was reported in the ‘Derry Journal’ on Friday, September 11th 1964.

“The crack Rumanian side Steaua, with all the odds stacked in their favour, failed to get the four goals margin that pre-match they said was the minimum advantage with which they could come to Brandywell next week without facing the possibility that the first round of the European Cup Winners’ Cup game could be their last,” wrote ‘Journal’ Sports Editor, the late Frank Curran.

And had it not been for ‘some ill luck and two crucial decisions by Greek referee, Mr Monastiriotic, the scoreline might have made happier reading.’

The Steaua keeper sees another shot miss the target as Derry City attempt to force their way back into the tie at Brandywell.

“Take the elements with which Derry had to contend,” continued the report. “Not least was the climate, far more humid and stamina-sapping than at home, psychologically upsetting after a long plane journey; alien surroundings and food that was not more than tolerable to the Irish palate.

“Add all the circumstances together and it can be said that this Derry side did as any reasonable man could expect. The side had a mixture of luck, but rather more bad than good.”

The headline of the article was ‘Crossan and Mahon heroes of Bucharest’ and the latter can vouch for the Romanian’s good fortune on the day, claiming Derry should never have conceded three goals in the first leg.

In fact Mahon’s performance was so appreciated by the 36,000 fans - including the 26 who travelled from Derry - they gave him a standing ovation at the final whistle.

The Steaua Bucharest players train at Brandywell before the second leg.

‘Mahon not hitting the high spots so far this season, proved himself the man for the big occasion,” continued the Journal report. ‘Agile and alert, he exuded confidence and was one of the Derry players most talked about by the Romanians after the game.’

Mahon takes up the story . . .

“We actually got beat 3-0 but it should’ve been 1-0,” he claimed. “In fact, it should’ve been no score to be honest because the first goal they got they boy took it behind the byline and crossed it and we all stopped. The boy (Cornel Pavlovici) stuck it into the net and the referee pointed to the centre circle. That was early on in the match.

“The second one was a penalty kick in the second half. I had been playing really well, I had a great game and this boy called Constantin, who played 78 times for Romania and was their big name, he came up to take the penalty and I thought to myself, just before he takes it I’m going to make a wee darting move to the left. And as he’s hitting it I’m going to go the other way.

“I remember thinking for a split second ‘He’s not going to fall for this’. So I hesitated for a split second, got my hand to the ball, pushed it against the upright and it trickled into the net.

“The third goal was really a nothing goal. The ball came down and Frankie (Campbell) went for it and at the last minute he stepped back. I was waiting for him to take it and he was leaving it for me.

Steaua keeper, Dumitru Eremia gathers this high ball.

“We played some lovely football on the night and I remember looking at them and thinking ‘God that’s not bad there’ for a crowd of lads from Derry.

“It was fairly ground breaking and it was good not to let the place down when we went out there. As good a game as I had I was a bit disappointed I didn’t complete the job but that’s football!”

Mahon had done his best to sweeten up the home support before the match kicked off and it worked wonders as they cheered the charismatic keeper’s every move.

“We lined up and these girls came out and presented us with a bouquet of flowers,” he recalled. “I took mine back to goal with me and went behind the goal and gave each girl I saw a flower. Everything I did after that I got a big rapturous clap for it. I’m not sure if the talent or the PR was the doing the work,” he laughed.

The trip wasn’t all plain-sailing though for the City team, however, as Mahon explains the rather bizarre experience on the flight over.

“On the way over there it was an absolute bloody nightmare. Derry had chartered one of those old World War II planes. It took us 10 hours going to Romania and we had a lunatic for a pilot. He was giving all these, what he thought, were funny announcements over the intercom.

“It was my first flight and the next thing he steps out of the cockpit and walks down the plane talking to everyone. I know that’s not a problem as the co-pilot is in there but it was my first flight and I was freaking out.

“He said to us as it was a very long flight ‘Would you like to touch down in Vienna airport, do a bit of duty free shopping and then we’ll proceed on to Bucharest’. Everyone said ‘Yes’, we could do a bit of shopping and stretch the legs.

“But that was the last we heard of it (the suggested impromptu stop) as he just flew on. Not only did he fly on but he flew over Yugoslav air space which wasn’t a part of the Soviet Union but it was a communist state. We flew over their air space without getting permission. That was a bloody hanging offence in those days.

“They started firing up these tracer bullets at us shooting past the plane. Not to bring us down but to force us down. But your man just flew on to Bucharest and we never heard anything else about it.”

Mahon remembers being struck by the poverty of the people in Bucharest and while he will never forget the cold cuisine and the welcoming reception the team received, he fondly recalls an unlikely friendship with Steaua goalkeeper, Titi Eremia, with whom he corresponded for years afterwards.

“We had no comprehension how bleak Romania was at that time. That was my first trip abroad and it’s a wonder I ever travelled again,” he joked. “And the food was absolutely dire.

“Fay (Coyle) got something which looked like roast beef but it was cold. Fay had a go at it and was asking for second helpings. As the guy was putting it on the plate Fay asked what it was and it turned out to be horse. That dampened his appetite.”

And if it was music legend Ronnie Wood socialising with Sean Connery’s ex-wife, Diane Cilento, it wouldn’t have been considered a big deal but it wasn’t the Rolling Stone accompanying Mahon to their hotel bar during the trip.

No, it was his Scottish teammate and James Bond fanatic who couldn’t believe his luck when he spotted the Oscar nominated Aussie actress!

“Ronnie Wood, the Scotsman, was this mad James Bond man,” explained Mahon. “He had all the gizmos and posters. We went in to the hotel bar and sitting at the bar was this beautiful looking girl sitting on her own. Ronnie recognised her and it turned out to be Diane Cilento.

“Ronnie went up to the bar and said ‘Diane Cilento, can I buy you a drink’ and she said ‘Yeah, that’s fine’. We got chatting but I remember it cost two pound five and sixpence which is maybe 30 quid today. Ronnie nearly had a fit!”

Back to the football, and despite that disappointing result from the first leg, Derry felt they were still in with a chance of winning the home tie.

‘Steaua will find Brandywell a different proposition,” predicted City boss, Ross. “The lads played their hearts out and I doubt if any other side coming as visitors to Steaua would fare better’.

According to Mahon, however, the return leg proved to be ‘an anti-climax’ with City losing 2-0 thanks to a brace of goals from Carol Creiniceanu.

“It was a full house at the Brandywell. There was maybe 10,000 or something like that but the match itself was an anti-climax. I think they scored early but it wasn’t terrific.”

“Derry went out, beaten by a technically superior, faster, fitter side but it was defeat with honour in a game that increased rather than diminished Derry’s prestige,” concluded Journal reporter, Curran after the second leg.

“The other thing I remember about the Romanians was their jerseys were dreadful,” added Mahon.

“And even though nobody will exchange with the goalkeeper anyway, I went down to the City Hotel the next day before they left with a Derry City shirt and they still wouldn’t swap shirts with me. I remember I wanted to change with the No. 3 but he wouldn’t,” added the ex-City custodian.

So while Mahon has nothing tangible from that famous meeting with the Romanians, the goalkeeper ranks that historic two legged affair amongst his most cherished memories in the red and white Candy Stripes!

Next week we revisit Derry City’s history-makers from the following season (1965/66) as they became the first Irish side to progress through a first round in Europe when they stunned Norwegian outfit, FK Lyn Oslo.