Derry City FC were always in a different league - Guy King

Director Guy King says every generation of Derry City fans will have the opportunity to relive the remarkable rebirth of their club when his film ‘Different League: The Derry City Story’ is screened on BBC1 on Monday evening at 9pm.

Saturday, 17th April 2021, 6:00 am
Former Sunderland and Manchester City winger Dennis Tueart in action in Derry City's first game in the League of Ireland against Home Farm, at a packed Brandywell way back in 1985.

King’s documentary, which will be shown across the UK on BBC2 at the same time, depicts the never to be forgotten rising from the ashes of the Candy Stripes, concentrating on the period from the club’s fairytale return to senior football in 1985 to becoming only League of Ireland club in history to complete the ‘treble’ in 1989. The project proved an emotional journey for all involved, even the film-maker who admits that it has reawakened his own love for the beautiful game.

“I never properly understood the magic of live football but after this film, I get it,” insisted King. “Meeting Derry City fans such as Karen Pyne who seems to be carrying the ‘80s spirit into the present-day matches, I can see that live football rewards the effort you put into it.

“I’m a convert. I love being part of the new generation of Derry City fans. Who will be the next Owen da Gama to inspire their own fan club? Their own line in woolly jumpers, beef burgers or even pyjamas?”

King, a former Foyle College student, revealed the idea for the film came while directing BBC One NI’s ‘Border Country: When Ireland Was Divided’.

“In the process of making one film you sometimes hit on an idea for another one. In this case, the idea for ‘Different League: The Derry City Story’ came at the time we were making ‘Border Country: When Ireland Was Divided’,” he explained. “I was working with two excellent young Derry filmmakers, Sean Mullen and Diana Cheung, and Sean met the ‘gang of four’ who brought senior football back to the Brandywell

“The story was so epic it deserved a film in its own right. The next time I had a meeting with a BBC commissioner I mentioned Derry City’s ‘glory years’ and she got really excited about the idea.

“If there is a future film to come out of this one it would be about the other football club in the city, Institute. It has a surprising story with some great twists, from their rebirth in the 1980s to their own Brandywell years more recently.

Derry City supporters at a packed Brandywell ahead of their first game in the League of Ireland in 1985.

“The cross-community ethos at Institute is a great source of pride for their fans - and they’ve had a fair amount of on-the-field success too. Between Derry City, Institute and the D&D league, we must be pound-for-pound one of the best footballing cities in Europe.

“When researching the film it blew my mind to think that a dozen international footballers were born within a stone’s throw of the Brandywell. And then there were the ones that should have been internationals but were overlooked because of Derry’s geopolitical location.

“Their names will reverberate around those streets forever - Jimmy Kelly, Fay Coyle, Jim McLaughlin, Willie Curran, Charlie Heffron to name a few.

“The talent is ridiculous - Paul Carlyle, who played with Jan Molby and John Barnes, had an elder brother Hilary who played with Eusebio against Pele. Imagine! But when you chat to the old-timers, there’s nobody in any doubt who was the greatest Derry footballer of them all, Jobby Crossan, he’s so well-known they named a sports shop in Pennyburn after him.

Noel King gets interview by former BBC Sports Journalist Richie Kelly after he resigned as Derry City manager in 1987.

“From that era, I had the great pleasure of getting to know Arthur ‘Mousey’ Brady, a five-foot-nothing Derry City winger from the 1954 cup winning side who, in jest, used to compare himself favourably to Lionel Messi, and by the sounds of it, he certainly had a few interesting moves. At the Brandywell on one occasion, Eamonn McCann watched him ferreted himself through a tall defender’s legs, emerging in full control of the football.”

The Glenarm native says the film centres on the club rebirth in 1985, building toward a climatic finale with Sven-Goran Eriksson bringing his Benfica team of superstars into the heart of the Bogside for a European Cup tie four years later.

“We covered 1984-1989, the five years when Derry City went from zero to heroes,” state King. “Starting with no team, no future prospect of senior football, no hope.

“From that to the second tier League of Ireland matches in the snow against EMFA and in the mud against Monaghan. And then within a few short years, came the arrival of the kingpins of world football, two-times European Cup winners Benfica.

Derry City manager Jim McLaughlin celebrates winning the League Cup, in the first part of the club's domestic treble in 1989.

“Our film sadly hadn’t room for the pre-1971 era but I learnt that in 1928 Derry City was established as a non-sectarian club, and it’s interesting to listen to Tony O’Doherty in all the TV interviews he did in the 1980s reiterating this fact: ‘When you come through our gates there are no politics and no religion. Just football.’ It was his mantra, the belief that football had the power to transcend everything.

“Music has the same power in Derry, that’s why it was important to me that the music in the film was from Derry bands. Out of the eight songs included in the film, seven of them are by local singer-songwriters, and a few of them were written especially for the film. The eighth is by an act from Wicklow, ‘Automatic Tasty’, but the song is called A Happy Town so I thought it was perfect for what is a feel-good movie.

“One of my favourite feel-good moments in the film is when Felix Healy arrives at the club and we mark the occasion with his rendition of ‘Derry For the Cup’, a song written by Danny Feeny. Derry has great pedigree in both football and music and that’s embodied in Felix.

“One of the fans said that if Jim McLaughlin was god, then Felix was a messiah which is maybe taking it a bit far, even in the hyped-up world of filmmaking. But for some reason you can get away with a bit of football blasphemy in Derry.

“Another example of Derry being football crazy was a Subbuteo game I watched in Martin Bradley’s garage between a present-day Derry City team and a 1980s Treble-winning team. The little Tim Dalton had a mullet and the little Felix Healy had an intricately painted moustache. That’s one way to pass the time during lockdown!”

King believes the film should be enjoyed by football fans up and down the country.

Derry City side which lost to Benfica in the European Cup in 1989.

“Fans will see one of the world’s most jaw-dropping and unique football stories told by the men and women who experienced it up close - the gang of four, ex-players, ex-managers, journalists, fans and the commentator’s daughter,” he confirmed. “It is an upbeat tale of derring-do about a team overcoming the odds to prove that every now and again, football can change the world.

“Derry City fans will be treated to a roller coaster of nostalgia and joy to brighten up these snowy April days. It is fitting weather, because one of the last times it snowed in the month of April was when Derry City beat Cobh Ramblers at the Brandywell to lift the league title in 1989.

“But it’s worth saying, this is not a fanzine film. Avid City followers might notice a few things missing, such as the FAI Cup Final disappointment in 1988, when the referee gave that scandalous penalty but if we’d gone into too much detail with the football story, we’d have missed the context. As Felix puts it in the film: ‘This wasn’t about football, this was about Derry and the people’. That’s what we were hoping to get at: Can football be spiritual? Can it lift people out of themselves and change society?

“We want people who hate football to love this film. It’s going out all over the UK, and hopefully in the Republic later in the year. People already have a soft spot for the city from the ‘Derry Girls’ phenomenon, and hopefully this film will add to the warmth people feel towards Derry.

“It was exactly the same positivity that Derry’s football fans created in the ‘80s. I can’t tell you how many people told me the same thing: the Candystripe Carnival gave people the chance to prove that this city was about more than petrol bombs or the Troubles.

“The club didn’t need police at the ground because the fans were fun-loving, peaceful and full of love. And that spirit carries on. Wasn’t it the famously hard-nosed Paris fans who got into the Derry spirit with a banner, ‘You Are Now Entering Free Paris?’

“The most painful thing for me was leaving things out. I wish we’d found a place for the punk song about Kevin Mahon. Or the story of the Derry City legends who loved the city so much they stayed - Jack Keay, Stuart Gauld and Pascal Vaudequin. Or the Gerry Anderson rap with the immortal lines: “Quigley, Mahon, Brendan Bradley, Kojak, Declan didn’t do badly, But then came a man who had no fear, Jose Mokendi from Zaire!”

King praised everyone who played their part in making the film happen and also for working through the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve never worked on a project where people were so helpful. I’m sorry I didn’t get to include everyone, but I’m all up for sequels if there’s a demand,” he added.

“The film took a year to make. We had a great team, which included the camera talents of Mark McCauley and the unrivalled passion of producer, Vinny Cunningham.

“It was a treat to make a film with a crew who had also experienced the era. Mark’s uncle James was a director at Derry City, Vinny was at all the important games with Online Video and I remember rattling the cage as Pascal whipped in the crosses for Johnny Speak while referee Denis McArdle got stick from the fans.

“Thanks to the football gods, COVID-19 gave Derry a break in August. We had masks, gloves, thermometers and disinfectant, but we got there.”

As for King himself, he enjoyed going down memory lane, looking back on the city where he grew up and he admits that despite living in London, he still keeps an eye on the club’s fortunes.

“What can be more fun than interviewing your childhood heroes,” he said. “Due to an old back injury, I used to get sports physio from Derry City legend Ray McGuinness, while picking his brains about the history of the club.

“He’s one of the most big-hearted people you’ll meet and always went out of his way to look after the overseas players when they came to Derry. Most fans wouldn’t know about the success he had in South Africa at the same time Derry City was winning the Treble.

“He was playing in front of 100,000 crowds and the national newspaper described him as the “best midfield destroyer South Africa has ever seen”. I love hearing stories like that.

“It was great that Felix Healy went on to win the league as manager and I was delighted for Liam Coyle that he was a Derry City star long after his injury setback. I wish I’d been at the Gretna and Paris matches during that UEFA cup run - that must have been class.

“If I learnt one thing from the film, it’s that we’re all missing a trick by not getting together in a big group of 10,000 other Derry people in the Brandywell every couple of weeks to sing and shout and roar.

“How healthy would that be (when we get our vaccine passports, of course!)”

Director Guy King.