Derry City in Europe: Gary Beckett bridges 40 years gap against Apoel Nicosia
HAVE YOU ever scored in Europe? . . . Have you F**k!
GARY BECKETT enjoyed three years of bragging rights after the postman delivered Derry City’s first away goal in European competition for almost 40 years in Cyprus back in 2003!
The City striker, who played almost 400 games for the Brandywell outfit, boasts an impressive record of nine appearances in Europe during his 13 memorable seasons with the club.
And while his best year in Europe was yet to come, he ranks his famous goal in the soaring heat at the GSP Stadium amongst his most treasured memories.
It was the first away goal in Europe scored by a City player since Billy Gilbert’s first half brace against FK Lyn at the Bislet Stadium, Oslo in September 1965. Ronnie Wood, incidentally, was the first Derry play to score on the continent in that historic match!
And Beckett quite rightly soaked up the plaudits until Sean Hargan ‘smashed it out of the park’ with his priceless goal against Gothenborg in 2006.
While City legend, Beckett, who won a league title and two FAI Cups with the Brandywell club, recently celebrated his 47th birthday, his memory of that night in Cyprus was still fresh when quizzed about it this week.
And despite that famous goal being just one of his 56 goals scored in a Derry shirt, ‘Bing’ can vividly recall hitting the back of the Cypriot net on this day, exactly 17 years ago.
The goal got Derry back on level terms after Wojciech Kowlczyk’s earlier strike for Nicosia, who had been on the brink of the Champions League group stages the previous season.
Eddie McCallion did superbly well in the build-up but Beckett, with the goal still fresh in his mind, is reluctant to give the former City right-back full credit as he still had plenty to do.
“I think they scored after 22 minutes and then I equalised two minutes before half-time,” said Beckett. “I often hear it was a great cross from Eddie but I think it bounced four times before it got to me,” he laughed.
“He threw a ball into Coyler (Liam Coyle) who held it up and played it perfectly in between two players. Eddie’s made a great run off it and crossed it.
“He clipped the first boy and it came off another boy’s foot and fell a wee bit awkward for me. I tried to get a decent connection on it and hit the target. Thankfully it went,” he smiled.
With the adrenaline pumping, Beckett ran straight towards the home fans taunting them with his finger on his lip. Chaos ensued!
Admittedly, while he was always inventive when it came to celebrating goals, this wasn’t his best idea.
“I ran to their crowd and shushed them with my finger on my lips and I remember there was KFC boxes which came flying towards me from a number of places and there were Pepsi cups being thrown.
“I remember Eamon Doherty shouting at them to ‘calm down’ and I was sitting going ‘Doc’ for God’s sake there’s about 2,000 of them there - I don’t think they’re going to listen.’
“When we went in at half-time they were hanging over the wall to get at us. The abuse we got going in and out of the stadium was something else.
“Obviously we didn’t understand the language but I don’t think they were shouting; ‘I hope yous have a bit of luck today’.”
Apoel Nicosia netted a second goal through Stelios Okkarides at the start of second half but despite the second half onslaught, Derry kept the tie alive as Dermot Keely’s side returned home chasing a 2-1 deficit.
It was a terrific result which would ensure a full house at Brandywell in the return leg but it wasn’t until the journey home that the significance of Beckett’s goal finally began to sink in for the Enniskillen native.
“The goal I scored that night was unheard of around that time. I think it was the first time in 40 years a Derry player scored away from home in Europe.
“I remember coming back on the bus and Richie Kelly (former BBC Radio Foyle reporter) sat down beside me and told me I was the first player to score away from home in Europe for Derry in 40 years. ‘Seriously?’ I said. And I could feel myself going red and I was smiling and realised that this was something.
“It was a nice feeling that I could go home and see everyone and be proud walking through the door. It was a good buzz at the time.
“It was another highlight of my time at Derry and one I look back fondly on. Especially the away game.
“I held on to that ‘have you ever scored in Europe’ line until Gothenborg in 2006 when ‘Hargy’ scored and that was the end of that! I got three years out of it so it wasn’t too bad and when he scored that goal I wasn’t exactly complaining.
“It was absolutely smashed out of the park by ‘Hargy’ and then with five goals in Gretna but it was a nice feeling at the time and a nice personal highlight.”
The result in Nicosia was all the more impressive considering Derry’s preparations for the game during a ‘whirlwind’ 48 hours.
Just two days before their UEFA Cup encounter, the Candy Stripes locked horns with the mighty Barcelona who arrived at the behest of the late club President, John Hume, in a desperate bid to raise some funds for the cash-strapped club.
A 5-0 loss at the hands of Frank Rijkaard’s star-studded side which included debutante, Ronaldinho, as the Derry players were given the runaround for most of the game, wasn’t the best thing for the legs going into a European away tie.
Straight after the game the Derry team was whisked off to catch a flight to Cyprus.
“We played Barcelona a couple of days before that,” recalled Beckett. “I had a chance to score in that game. I saw (Patrik) Andersson coming and I was thinking, ‘I’m going to get hurt here’.
“I went up and just didn’t commit at all and missed the chance. I got a bit of stick. I said I would score on Thursday but they all laughed and told me; ‘Nobody scores in Europe’.”
“At the end of the day the club was more important and it was on its knees financially. The late John Hume arranged it and it had to be done.
“You know when you’re playing those games you’ll not have the ball. It’s a fantastic feeling for about five minutes and then you have to run.
“It was exactly that, a whirlwind. To play Barcelona and the team they put out that day, it was an unbelievable occasion. A tough night as we had a lot of running to do that day but I really enjoyed that day.
“We got straight on a bus to catch a flight to Cyprus after the game where it was 35 degrees. We were only allowed out of our hotel rooms for half an hour as it was that warm.
“The same day, I was rooming with Sean Hargan and he got news that he became a father for the second time while we were in Cyprus.
“I remember going to the stadium itself, a great big stadium, and the grass was so different it was like sponge grass or something. It was so, so warm and we knew it was going to be tough.
"But we gave some hope with a very hard fought performance. It’s never a good result to get beat but in Europe that was good enough to take it back to the Brandywell.
“And again, for financial reasons, it was great because we could fill the place as we were still in the tie.”
Indeed, it set up a much anticipated UEFA Cup qualifying round second leg clash two weeks later on August 28th.
However, despite a battling display, City couldn’t prevent their Uefa Cup dream being ended by their Cypriot opponents in a 3-0 loss as the home side were caught on the break in the second half.
Costakis Malekos had handed Apoel Nicosia a 36th minute lead and although the visitors’ centre-half George Ananatides was dismissed in the 73rd minute for striking out at Derry’s Michael Holt, the home side were caught twice on the counter.
In the 80th minute Charalaubides raced through unchallenged to slide the ball wide of the advancing Alan Gough and Apoel added a third goal in the 90th minute through substitute, George Papandreon, who tapped home from two yards.
“They got good goals at the right time. I think one went under the wall from a free-kick. We were doing quite well up until that. We had a couple of chances, nothing clear-cut but we were doing okay. That goal killed us. They kicked on and we were beat 3-0 in the end up.”
Derry were out of the competition at the first round stage once again but Beckett could always take comfort from his heroics in Cyprus and a goal he cherishes.
The 2003 campaign was a season of upheaval following the sacking of Kevin Mahon as Dermot Keely and then Gavin Dykes tried their luck in the City hotseat.
Liam Coyle famously kept Derry in the top flight with 101st minute strike in the relegation play-off final against Finn Harps to wrap up an eventful campaign for the Candy Stripes.
The unforgettable match with La Liga giants, Barcelona and Beckett’s magic in Nicosia would, however, leave a lasting legacy at the Brandywell club.
Beckett, who maintains he should’ve finished his Derry career with an extra two league title winners’ medals from 2005 and 2006, was also part of the club’s most memorable campaign in Europe three years after the Apoel game.
And it’s there where we continue Derry City’s ‘European Dance’ next week.