Derry City historian Brian Dunleavy takes a trip down memory lane

IN THE spare room of Brian Dunleavy’s Culmore home lays a treasure trove of nostalgia documenting every chapter in Derry City’s history since its entry into the League of Ireland in 1985.

Thursday, 18th March 2021, 9:52 am
Derry City's club historian Brian Dunleavy with his impressive collection of match programmes dating back from the club's first ever League of Ireland game in 1985 right through to the final match fans were permitted into the Brandywell last year.

Transporting you back to a bygone era, Brian’s amassed an endless discovery of momentos in his unbroken collection of matchday programmes from around 1,800 fixtures, home and away, since that 3-1 victory over Home Farm at Brandywell Stadium 36 years ago.

However, the demise of this much loved matchday tradition, greatly accelerated by Covid and the digital age, has forced Brian (56) to announce he’s turning the final page on an unique collection he started when he just 21 years-old.

The unblemished set is more than a collectors’ dream, it’s a significant curation of history documenting the careers of 424 players and 16 different managers, all perfectly preserved within Brian’s Papworth Avenue home.

It includes match programmes from the club’s opening League of Ireland game, memorable fixtures against Benfica, Vitesse, Maribor, Barcelona, Man United, Celtic, Nottingham Forest, the FAI Cup final replay against Cork in 1989 which completed the yet-to-be-repeated ‘treble’ and travels right up until the final match at Brandywell against Bohemians in 2020 before Covid struck - the last match spectators were permitted in the ground.

Despite the sentimental value, Brian contemplated selling his collection last Christmas but says he would rather donate it to the club should the Candy Stripes eventually secure its own home as suggested by chairman, Mr Philip O’Doherty recently.

The father of two is content to keep it locked up until such a time comes around but he’s adamant his collecting has finally come to an end.

“It includes everything, home and away games, including friendlies,” enthused the Derry City historian. “It’s completely unbroken! In recent years when I haven’t been travelling as much, Jim O’Donnell gets me the programme from the away games, so it’s down to him too.

The programme from Derry City's first ever League of Ireland match against Home Farm in September 1985.

“We’ve played 1,530 odd competitive games and there’s a couple of hundred of friendlies on top of that so I would estimate there’s around 1,800.

“The only thing I’m stopping is collecting. I’ll still be volunteering. It’s just the amount of space it takes up and what am I doing it for?” he questioned. “It would be broken now because clubs are going online. The hard copies will become even more sporadic. It just wouldn’t be worth the effort.

“If the club had their own premises, as Philip O’Doherty has alluded to, they could have some sort of museum and I would donate my entire collection.

“I got up to the start of last season but my youngsters, Conor (24) and Kerri (26), are both away, so what am I collecting for? They’re just going to sit in the cupboard. All clubs are going digital, that’s going to be the way forward.”

Brian Dunleavy pictured with the first and last programmes from his unbroken collection which spans 36 years.

The printed programme may soon become a relic to a bygone age and the realisation that a pillar of his matchday experience is slipping away isn’t lost on Brian.

Indeed, the programme’s been an important element of the matchday experience at Brandywell for generations as fans bought their match souvenir from the likes of Jim O’Donnell or Vincent Doherty, yelling out something incomprehensible which sounded vaguely like ‘Get your matchday programme’!

“The cover price for the first programme at Brandywell was 50p and today’s edition remains the cheapest in the country,” claims Dunleavy, “At just £2.”

It’s offered some quality reading over the years and while Andrew Cassidy still commits his free time to producing the excellent digital ‘City View’, Brian believes it’s the end of an era for the hard copy edition.

“I honestly believe it’s the beginning of the end for programmes at smaller clubs,” he predicts. “The cost of producing it is more than what they’re bringing in. Plus, you don’t need to track down volunteers to stand in the rain and sell them.

“When you look at the people who were selling for us, they were being sold by the late Willie Curran who was still selling them until he was something like 88. Jim O’Donnell is significantly into his 60s. Vincent Doherty is also in his 60s while my family were doing it as well. You can’t get volunteers like that any more.

“Andrew Cassidy is doing a great job now. The likes of Mickey McBride kept the programme going for a long time along with Davy Doherty, Artie Duffy and Liam Hegarty, they were instrumental.”

Having had second thoughts about selling his collection, Brian decided to start his own nostalgic feature on Facebook called ‘This Day in History’ where he would post old photographs and extracts. It’s proven extremely popular and he’s decided to keep it going.

“It’s amazing the number of fans and players, not just from Derry but other clubs as well, who have told me how great it is. I’ll keep that running for a while yet and see how it goes.”

Brian balances his volunteering at the club with his full-time job at Ulsterbus but just when did Brian’s love affair with Derry City begin?

“There was no football when I was a nipper,” he explains as Derry were without a senior football team due their exile from the Irish League, “When I started in ‘85 I was probably just taken along on the wave.

“It was the newness of it all. It was something different for Derry at the time, something that you could focus on.

People in Derry didn’t have a lot of money and I never knew much outside of Derry myself, so to get to places like Cobh, Cork, Newcastle West and Galway, this was brilliant for me. I went seven years before I missed a match.

“My favourite experience was probably the away game at Gretna. That was 2006 so my daughter would’ve been 11 and my son nine. I had one on each side of me behind that goal. It was sensational. I was at the 1990 World Cup for the famous penalty shoot-out against Romania, I was behind the goals for that. And Gretna was better!

“My son, Conor was born in ‘96 and I was able to take him to Derry games and meet the players,” he adds. “He would only have been 10 but would kick the ball with Liam Coyle when Liam was an absolute star.

"I was away selling programmes and able to leave him behind in the nets. When David Forde and Pat Jennings were warming up they would’ve let Conor fetch the ball for them. That’s a big part of his childhood and it was all about the memories for him as far as I was concerned.

“When Barcelona came in 2003, Conor had time with Ronaldinho and met all the players and had a million photographs. Stuff you couldn’t buy. That all made it worthwhile doing that bit extra for the club.”

Since those early days in the ‘80s Brian has fulfilled almost every role at the club in a volunteer capacity, from working on the Development Committee, the Programme Committee, club treasurer to team bus driver. He’s even assumed the role of ‘water boy’ for certain friendly matches and helped wash the kits.

Such is his dedication to Derry City, Brian even waived his fee for driving the team bus - just don’t tell Mrs Dunleavy!

“There’s very little I haven’t done around the club,” he explains. “Other than play that is (laughs). I drove the team bus for a couple of years too without getting paid. The wife doesn’t even know that,” he smiles. (She does now, Brian!)

“I was taking my holidays off those days and driving the bus for nothing to keep costs down for the club. I was doing overnight trips to Waterford, Cork and wherever. I was taking two lieu days and driving for nothing.”

When asked what year he filled in as the team bus driver, unsurprisingly Brian, as the club’s historian and resident ‘stato’, answers by throwing out a stat.

“Well, I was driving the bus around the last time we won in Cork which was around 2012 off the top of my head. It didn’t bother me. I was getting to matches I probably wouldn’t have gone to. When I dropped the players off at night, myself and Philip Johnson went back to Brandywell to put the washing on. I brought Phil around to the old house with the green door and put the washing on so the kits were washed and dried by the next morning.”

For the Derry media, Brian’s presence at Brandywell on matchdays is always greatly appreciated. And for a collector, collecting is never over. Indeed there’s no need for OPTA Sports at Brandywell as his passion for collating stats is mesmerising at times. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the club and its players. The harder the query the more Brian revels in finding the answer.

So what’s his most impressive stat off the top of his head?

“The night Rovers beat us in the Brandywell last year was the first time in 12 years we had lost a home game after leading at half-time,” he offers.

“I can go into all sorts of details. It’s nearly too much. I could go into half-time scores and break down to competition scores so it’s nearly too much detail. My favourite game of recent times was the ‘Ryan McBride match’ in Buncrana four years ago - 2017 against Dundalk. That was the only time we beat Dundalk in the last 30 games. It’s a bit of a mad stat.”

The football can come second to friends made following the club around the country. Derry City has provided the Dunleavy family with some cherished memories and he’s hoping there’s plenty more to come.

“The thing I’ve gained most from football is the people I’ve met. I’ve met hundreds of people that I now call friends through Derry City.”

Brian’s collection represents a personal history, bookmarks of his life which awaken memories of special days following the ‘Red and White Army’.