Derry City in Europe: No happy ending to Gretna fairytale as City live the dream
“It’s something I will have with me until the day I die. It’s the best experience of my life. Being a local boy it would take something majestic to eclipse that . . .”
DARREN KELLY lived in the English border town of Carlisle, just 10 miles from Gretna when the Dumfriesshire club, backed by millionaire businessman, Brooks Mileson, began to rampage through the Scottish leagues.
The club from a village of little more than 3,000 people and most famous for its weddings, had been transformed by its eccentric owner in 2003 and propelled to the Scottish Cup Final and later the SPL.
And yet the real ‘Roy of the Rovers’ narrative belonged to Derry City in 2006 as the Brandywell outfit stunned the ‘Anvils’ at Fir Park with a sensational 5-1 hammering in the UEFA Cup.
Derry’s experienced centre half, Kelly, knew all about the Scottish ‘fairytale club’ when his hometown team were paired with them in the second round qualifiers given their meteoric rise was well documented in the local media.
He had played alongside Gretna’s Dublin winger, Brendan McGill at Carlisle and knew ex-Carlisle men Gavin Skelton and Ryan Baldacchino.
Indeed Kelly was relishing the chance to test himself against ‘The Good Doctor’, Gretna’s prolific marksman, Kenny Deuchar, who was convinced to leave his job as a general practitioner to join the club full-time.
Gretna were the first ever Scottish third tier club to qualify for the UEFA Cup after losing out on penalties to Hearts in the Scottish Cup Final that year - a remarkable rags to riches story.
“Brooks Mileson was pumping a lot of money into the club,” recalls Kelly. “All these players were on silly money.
So much so you had Kenny Deuchar up front who was a doctor and left his job as a GP to play full time at Gretna. That shows you how much money they were paying out,” he stressed.
“Living in Carlisle and seeing the Gretna thing take off before my eyes, it was all over the local papers. They were signing all the best players from the Scottish Premier so I knew what to expect. To be honest I couldn’t wait for the game because it was a challenge.”
Stephen Kenny’s troops had produced a seismic shock in the previous round when defeating European giants, Gothenburg in both legs.
That achievement was rather foolishly dismissed as a fluke by Gretna’s manager, Rowan Anderson, who was expecting a ‘physical’ Derry and ‘a typical Scottish game’. Kelly, who had just returned to Derry from his spell at Portadown, was taken aback by the ‘arrogance’.
“Some of the tripe he was coming out with was just degrading,” said Kelly.
Gretna may have been living the dream under their rich owner but they paid the ultimate price for disrespecting their little known opponents from Ireland.
“I remember everything around the game,” said Kelly. “I was at Carlisle and Gretna isn’t too far away so there were a few ex-teammates in the Gretna team.
“I also knew of Rowan Alexander and there was just so much arrogance. I was still very much in the loop with the Gretna situation. I was playing against people I knew and I knew the management.”
Given the quality among the Gretna ranks, Kelly, however, feared the worst when Ryan McGuffie, who scored in the Scottish Cup Final, fired them in front after 12 minutes.
“The week before we played I think they scored six (6-0 win against Hamilton) and that was a continuous thing. They had (James) Grady up front and Deuchar - big man, little man. You had (Ryan) Baldacchino and (Brendan) McGill.
“I’ll never forget when they scored. I thought if we didn’t get a grip early they could score another five or six. You couldn’t help but let that play on your mind.”
At that point Kelly felt Derry needed its leaders in the team to stand tall and grab the game by the scruff of the neck.
And it was the powerful centre half who rose to head home Sean Hargan’s cross midway through the first half from close range, a goal which turned the game on its head.
“It was me that scored and that stopped them in their tracks with the away goal. It was important we stamped our authority on the game and we started to take over.
“There were a couple of tackles going in, myself on Kenny Deuchar and Baz (Molloy) which sort of said to them
‘You’re messing with the wrong people here’.
“We weren’t going to be bullied and we had good leaders as well. The likes of Peter Hutton. When you need leadership when you’re a goal down, you need someone to grab the game by the scruff, someone to get you going and Pizza was fantastic for that. Gary Beckett as well. People did it in different ways.”
Kelly’s goal was the only one from six in the game scored into the far end of the ground opposite the Derry fans, but when it hit the back of the net he raced towards the mass of 3,000 travelling fans who rocked the stadium. It’s a moment he will never forget.
“My goal killed their momentum and shocked them. They were that used to winning and if they conceded it was when they were four or five goals ahead. We caught them off guard.
“I remember Hargy sent the cross in and I was never the biggest centre half but I was always spot on with my timing. It was just a leap from a standing position and I always had that ability to get my neck back and get the power into a header.
From seven or eight yards out,from a standing jump, I shouldn’t really be beating any keeper but to get that power on it just helped it go in. From that, we never looked back.
“The best feeling that no one can ever take away was when I scored and ran towards the Derry supporters. I remember the adrenaline and I was trying to get my breath but I absolutely pelted towards our supporters.
“I almost wanted them to stop jumping because I was thinking ‘That stand is going to collapse’. The noise, the atmosphere, the absolute pandemonium.
“I’m biased, yes, but in my eyes you’ll never get supporters like Derry City fans. It was unbelievable. It’s something that I will have with me until the day I die. It’s the best experience of my life. Being a local boy, it would take a majestic or out of this world to eclipse that.”
City skipper, Peter Hutton was quoted as saying: ‘It was as if someone had just picked the Brandywell up and moved it’ as they took over the south stand behind the goals.
“Being from Derry all my friends and family were going. The pubs were all packed and you just knew there was going to be a big crowd coming over,” added Kelly.
“We could hear the noise in the dressing rooms but when you actually saw the fans singing and dancing you get such an adrenaline rush. I believe, without a shadow of a doubt, when you play for your hometown club you give an extra 10 per cent. It’s almost like you have to for the badge because you’re a local boy.
“When we came out and saw the crowd at Gretna you just felt no one was going to stop us. Nothing was getting past us.”
City boss, Kenny changed his formation going out in the second half allowing Ciaran Martyn the freedom to roam and Derry began to tear apart the opposition.
Kevin Deery curled an outstanding free-kick into the far corner shortly after the break and two minutes later the Creggan man volleyed spectacularly into the net to make it 3-1.
Martyn then raced through the middle of the Gretna defence before applying a composed finish on 63 minutes and the Sligo man completed the rout with another clinichal strike.
“We saw and heard these things Gretna had said about us and Stephen didn’t need to say anymore. He didn’t need a teamtalk because they never gave us any respect and thought it would be a walkover. It could’ve been a lot worse for them.
“Ciaran Martyn was unplayable that day and Kevin Deery and everything went so well. We had characters and leaders in the team but we never took Gretna for granted when they came back to Brandywell.
"They were capable of scoring five goals and we had to make sure we didn’t get cocky or arrogant or ahead of ourselves. We had characters who wouldn’t let that happen.”
The result led to an angry reaction from Gretna boss.
“Maybe they needed something like this to show them that they’re not as good as they think they are,” said Alexander.
Gretna arrived at a packed Brandywell chasing down a four goal deficit but even David Graham’s early goal failed to ignite a comeback. The late Mark Farren netted an equaliser and Ken Oman gave Derry a 2-1 lead. Gretna sub, Balacchino scored a late equaliser but Derry sailed through 7-3 on aggregate.
“There was such a good team camaraderie. Usuall in changing rooms there can be little cliques all over but all the boys went out with each other and they were a brilliant set of teammates.
"You knew there was quality all over. It was just the best time. I still get goosebumps talking about it.
“Stephen was just gifted at assembling a team of good honest, hard-working people who had a bit of quality and went on and achieved something. It was an absolutely brilliant experience.”
Gretna’s fairytale was over and two years later, following the death of Mileson, the club folded.
Kelly’s remarkable season continued, scoring the winning goal to knock Shelbourne out of the FAI Cup at Tolka Park as City went on to win the trophy. And he also netted the winning penalty against Shels in the League Cup Final at Brandywell.
On the European front, Derry’s dream run continued with a clash with French giants, PSG and it’s here we take up the story of Derry’s European Dance in our next edition!