Derry City Football Club's fascinating century-old link with The Derry Journal

SINCE DERRY City’s inception in early 1928 and subsequent senior debut in the Irish League the following year, ‘The Derry Journal’ has been chronicling the fascinating history of the Brandywell club.

By Simon Collins
Wednesday, 8th June 2022, 11:38 am
Updated Wednesday, 8th June 2022, 11:41 am
The Derry Journal reports on Derry City's first Irish Cup Final victory in April 1949 which began a golden era for the Brandywell club.
The Derry Journal reports on Derry City's first Irish Cup Final victory in April 1949 which began a golden era for the Brandywell club.

The newspaper, which celebrates its 250th anniversary this month, has been with the Lone Moor Road club every step of the way for the many ups and downs in its often turbulent and chequered past.

For almost 100 years, week in, week out, the ‘Journal’ has brought us the story of Derry City - the players, the matches, the goals, the incidents, the tragedies, the humour and the heartbreak. Good or bad, the ‘Journal’ was there reporting on the memorable (and not so memorable) milestones!

A look through the ‘Journal’ archives takes us on a remarkable journey beginning with reports on the initial steps to form a club at a meeting in the City Hotel on Monday, April 30th 1928.

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Derry City's league debut in the Irish League ended in a narrow defeat to Glentoran.

Under the headline ‘Senior Team for Derry’, the ‘Journal’ reported how a ‘well-attended meeting’ was held to consider the question of forming a senior football team to compete in the Irish Senior League and Irish Cup competitions having gone 16 years without one.

Mr. W. J. Arthur, J.P. who was moved to the chair for the meeting, said it was a ‘disgrace to the Maiden City that for all these years they had been without a senior team, and had been more or less in the background as regards football.’ The chairman added he was sure the people of Derry would rally around the club.

It was estimated it would cost about £45 a week to run a senior team and when Mr. W. Hume proposed the motion it was unanimously adopted.

“The Chairman, in asking for proposals as to the name of the club, said it was going to be run strictly on non-sectarian and non-political lines’ which was met by applause.

A proposal to form a senior team proved fruitful at a meeting in the City Hotel as reported by the Journal in May 1928.

Two names were proposed, Derry City and Derry United and there was an overwhelming vote in favour of the former. With the Corporation to be approached and expected to grant the use of the Brandywell as the club’s home ground, Messrs. R.S Holland, B.L., C. Dunniece, N. M’Clure and P.J. Fanning were appointed as a deputation to go to Belfast the following Friday night in order to seek the club’s admission to the Irish Senior League.

It was a late bid which ultimately failed as Derry City were refused entry into the Irish League. At a North West Association annual meeting, Councillor C. M’Gahey questioned the motives of the Belfast based football authorities.

“To admit a team from Ballymena with a population of 13,000 and to reject a team from Derry City with a population of almost 50,000 was ridiculous and a slight on Derry,” he claimed.

There was to be no stopping the people of Derry, however, and on May 10th 1929 the newly formed Derry City F.C. made its debut appearance in a friendly fixture against Dundalk - a match which evoked ‘tremendous enthusiasm’ and which the ‘Journal’ reported ‘must be taken as a strong augury for the club’s success if admitted to the senior league next season’. The report added the occasion ‘should be a source of encouragement to those who have undertaken the task of getting a senior club under way in the city.’

Sheffield United legend Billy Gillespie was appointed manager of Derry City FC.

It continued: “It is questionable if Brandywell has ever housed a bigger crowd, the attendance being estimated at well over 5,000’.

On Monday morning, June 3rd the ‘Journal’ reported the historic news that Derry City had been admitted to the Irish League, a decision which was broadcast at the final of the McAlinden Cup between Derry Celtic and Richmond at Brandywell the previous Friday night, May 31st!

First and unrivalled with news of transfers and the daily goings-on at the club, the ‘Journal’ reported the incoming signings of three cross channel players as preparations got underway for the club’s Irish League debut against Glentoran. Glasgow Celtic player James Crozier, an understudy to Scottish international, Alex Thompson, was the most high profile of the new recruits signed by manager, Joe McCleery.

Finally, on August 22nd 1929 ‘a crowd of practically 10,000 witnessed the reintroduction of senior football to Derry at Brandywell’ as the club made its long awaited Irish League bow. Glentoran fought back from a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1 but it hardly detracted from the occasion. It was the first match in Derry’s eventual 42 years of Irish League history!

The Derry City team which clinched the Irish League title in 1965.

And supporters didn’t have long to wait before they were celebrating victory. Before one of the largest crowds (est. 12,000) that Brandywell had ever accommodated Derry City accomplished what many considered impossible - the defeat of Linfield (holders) in the first round of the Gold Cup by 3-1.

Three days later, on September 9th, the newspaper reported Derry’s first league win under the headline ‘Annex the points at Newry’. Their maiden league campaign would conclude with victory over Bangor at Brandywell to finish the season in a credible fifth position.

Nowadays, in the digital age, Derry City has increasingly turned to in-house social media volunteers to complement the local and national media but the ‘Journal’ has always been at the forefront of breaking news and delivering inside information for supporters. Transfers rumours and links were reported as journalists made use of close relationships with club officials.

An objective and independent press is vital, and is often the only way fans can discover the truth about what’s going on at their clubs. And the ‘Journal’ was never backwards in ruffling a few feathers when the time called for it, often to the detriment to its relationship with the club or managers who perhaps took umbrage at leaked information appearing in the press.

Another key date in the history of the club was documented in October 1930 when the legendary Jimmy Kelly was linked with a move to Derry as the ‘Journal’ again broke the story.

“Negotiations for the transfer to Derry City of young Kelly, the Derry-born Liverpool player are now almost certain to have a successful termination and there is a strong possibility that he will appear with the team to oppose Linfield in Belfast tomorrow,” the article read.

“The Liverpool club were in communication with the Derry club yesterday when it was intimated that a number of Irish clubs were interested in Kelly, a substantial transfer fee, I am informed, being mentioned. The Derry City management immediately made an offer which , it is understood, was deemed satisfactory, so that it would appear to be now only a matter of procuring his papers and getting him signed on.”

To Derry fans he was known simply as ‘Ginger’, to the football world in general he won a reputation as ‘the scoring machine’. He played his first game against Linfield in October 1930 and his last in February 1952 at the age of 41. He scored a total of 379 goals for the club during those 20 years including his record tally of 46 goals during the 1938-39 season - reportedly just one of those with his head!

Another seismic story broke in the newspaper on June 13th 1932 under the headline ‘Rumours of changes in Derry club’, written by the Journal’s sports reporter using the pseudonym ‘Rover’.

“The rumour is persistent that the manager, Mr McCeery, will not be with Derry City next season. I asked one director of the club whether there was any truth in the rumour that Mr Cleery had severed his connection with the club. He declined to say anything by way of confirmation or denial. On June 24th the ‘Journal’ reported the appointment of Sheffield United legend, Billy Gillespie, as Derry City’s new manager!

“Billy Gillespie, the ex-Sheffield United and Irish international player has accepted the terms offered to him by Derry City F.C. to act as player-manager.” It was the beginning of a golden era for the football club.

Derry City’s first ever silverware, the City Cup triumph of 1935 was also documented in the ‘Journal’ and the years 1949, 1954 and 1964 went down in Derry soccer history as the seasons the Irish Cup came to the city.

So how was that triumphant day in 1949 reported in the local media? Under the heading ‘The City Shine in History-Making Final’, the ‘Journal’ report read: “Ten thousand wildly-excited fans from the city and all over the North West were among the 27,000 spectators who paid the record sum of £2,300 in gate receipts at Windsor Park, Belfast.

“The Derry supporters with their red and white favours and their variety of noise making instruments contributed a lot to what will go down as one the best cup finals ever. The colour of the cup final crowd was matched too by the brightness of the game, a fast pulsating struggle in which Derry, playing with 10 men for a vital 15 minutes, only settled the issue seven minutes from the end with a grand goal by their Scottish centre forward, Barney Cannon.”

Five years later and the ‘Jimmy Delaney’ year arrived, the ‘Journal’ reported his signing in January 1954 as he inspired Derry to a great cup run when, after two draws against Glentoran in the final, Delaney made the opening for Con O’Neill to score the only goal of the third game.

Ten years passed before City completed the hat-trick of cup wins as two goals in the last seven minutes beat Glentoran for a third time, Joe Wilson and Matt Doherty the scorers.

On April 20th 1965 the ‘Journal’ were on hand once again to record another magical moment in the history of Derry City with page six dedicated to Willie Ross’ famous Candy Stripes’ first ever and never-to-be-repeated Irish League Championship triumph as they finished ‘with a flourish’ in a 5-1 win over Ards at Brandywell. The honour of becoming the first Derry man to lead a City side to the title was bestowed on Fay Coyle who smashed the club’s individual goalscoring post-war record in both 1963-64 and 1964-65 seasons.

The ‘Derry Journal’ reporter regularly travelled on the team bus to games and was invited on board the chartered plane for famous European escapades. The record breaking win over FK Lyn in 1965 as Derry became the first Irish club to win a round in Europe was reported in full by the local publication while fans were kept up to date on the controversy surrounding Derry’s second round tie with Anderlecht which the club pulled out of due to the IFA’s insistence the Brandywell wasn’t up to standard.

Derry City didn’t always solely dominate the back pages but received some unwanted media attention in the news section. A front page splash wasn’t unusual for the club and on Tuesday, September 14th 1971 the ‘Journal’ reported that ‘Derry club’s future is in the balance’ following an incident when a group of about 20 youths hijacked the Ulsterbus bus in which the Ballymena United team and officials came to the ground.

The report concluded with the following ominous prediction: “Derry lost their first ever senior game in Brandywell to Glentoran 2-1 in 1929. Ballymena may well prove to be the last side to win a senior match at the venue which has housed senior football for 42 years.”

It would prove to be the final time Derry City featured in an Irish League match in the stadium with the club banished from Brandywell and after playing its home matches 35 miles away in Coleraine, on Friday, October 13th 1972 at a board meeting convened by the club, its directors decided to pull out of the Irish League as a result.

The club developed a knack of bouncing back from severe adversity though and thanks to the ‘Gang of Four’, Eddie Mahon, Tony O’Doherty, Terry Harkin and Eamonn McLaughlin, who applied to join the League of Ireland in 1984 and succeeded at the second attempt, the club’s 13 years stretch in the wilderness of junior football came to an end.

It was the dawn of a new era for the club who returned to competitive senior football against Home Farm in a League Cup match on September 8th 1985 with 8,000 fans pouring into the Brandywell.

The ‘Journal’ went along for the ride as the club’s renaissance in the League of Ireland began and the explosion in the paper’s circulation, which rose to unprecedented levels, was no coincidence. Everyone wanted a piece of Derry City and the local newspaper duly benefited.

Frank Curran, aka ‘The Celt’, covered the club for the ‘Journal’ from the 1940s up until 1972 and picked up where he left off when Derry returned to senior football until the late ‘80s. His encyclopedic knowledge and record keeping was impressive and only Arthur Duffy, who picked up the red and white baton in the early 90s and carried it until his move into the Editor’s seat in 2015, rivalled Curran in terms of longevity.

Sports reporters came and went but the Journal’s coverage remained consistent and unmatched as the local publication documented Derry’s historic domestic treble triumph of 1989 under Jim McLaughlin.

The newspaper continued to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship with the football club as it helped drum up support, advertise shares, monthly draws, club Lotto and drive season ticket sales among other marketing initiatives as the ‘Journal’ thrived as the primary source of news for Derry City supporters.

FAI Cup and League Cup successes and the 1997 League title victory were the highlights of the ensuing years but at Derry City controversy was never far from hitting the headlines.

Having flirted with bankruptcy in 2000, the late great John Hume helped organise benefit matches against Barcelona, Celtic and Man United which helped keep the club afloat. The 2006 European odyssey under Stephen Kenny was a particular highlight during those years, however, the ‘Journal’ occasionally needed to be the bearer of bad news and was at the forefront when exclusively revealing the signing of double contracts in November 2009 and City almost fell off the football map for a second time in 12 years when the debt ridden club was expelled from the League of Ireland over those financial irregularities.

It was described in the ‘Journal’ as a ‘draconian decision’ but the club reportedly owed E80,000 in outstanding wages to the club’s staff and straddled debts of around £800,000 in total.

Former Vice chairman, Jack McCauley, who was involved in talks with the FAI on the club’s behalf alongside Paul Diamond, Philip O’Doherty, Patrick Durkan, Martin McDaid and Hugh McDaid, told the ‘Journal’ at the time: “Yes, it’s very sad what has happened. At best, we will be playing in the First Division provided we meet the UEFA Licensing criteria but that’s the only deal on the table. We have to face the music and basically start again.”

It was a case of history repeating itself as Derry City FC experienced a renaissance, similar to that historic rebirth back in 1985 as they survived in the senior arena.

Needing the local media more than ever, Derry City’s rise from the graveyard of the First Division was again well documented by the ‘Journal’ as the sports journalism began to undergo seismic changes with the digital media revolution which included the proliferation of social media - changing the way Derry City coverage was produced and consumed.

Players and managers became more accessible and fans began to expect more of an insight into players’ lives and the affairs of the club while the club became more guarded and protective of its internal goings on.

Sports journalism hasn’t slept since the dawn of the digital age as deadlines were replaced by audience targets to hit daily. Finding the right balance and developing new relationships with club officials was key to maintaining the relationship between the ‘Journal’ and Derry City FC and some team managers were more media savvy than others, realising the benefits of maintaining a strong relationship with local press.

Managerial arrivals and departures (16 in total since 1985), transfer rumours, human interest stories and the traditional match reports and features remain a staple part of the ‘Journal’.

The tragic sudden loss of City skipper Ryan McBride in 2017 and record goalscorer Mark Farren’s death in 2016 have proven difficult stories to document for the local media while tributes have been paid in the paper to lifelong Derry City supporters who have passed away through the years.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride with never a dull moment. And with the club currently embarking on a promising new chapter under current boss Ruaidhri Higgins with another European adventure on the horizon, the demand for news and insight into the club and its players is certain to increase.

Almost a century since the club’s formation, the ‘Derry Journal’ remains an integral part of that journey and keeps intact the timeline of events as this unique Derry City story filled with its many twists and turns continues . . . .

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The story of Derry City Football Club told by The 'Derry Journal'