IT WAS a football match which warranted the attention of the country for all the right reasons in anticipation of an intriguing, sold-out clash between the League of Ireland’s two form teams and the occasion should’ve found a city in bouyant mood.
However, the night before Derry City welcomed league leaders Shamrock Rovers to the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium on Good Friday, the furore surrounding that tantalising match-up was all kicked into touch as a life was taken in the city by a cowardly and indefensible act of violence and, instead, the match was preceded by a stunned silence and eerily subdued atmosphere across Derry.
Football, and in particular, Derry City, remain a huge part of this city’s identity and on Friday night it was fitting that so many people turned out to cheer on their home town, with close to 4,000 packing into the Lone Moor Road stadium.
Ultimately, the relative triviality of sport and an absorbing game of football between two quality teams provided an emotional release for this city in mourning but the events of the night before - when talented 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee was fatally wounded by a gunman during rioting in Creggan while she was doing her job - had put everything into perspective.
Despite the widespread outrage and condemnation as hundreds gathered in Creggan in an act of solidarity hours before kick-off, the Brandywell was as vibrant as ever as the RTE cameras rolled into town.
And while it was superseded by something much more important, it gave the people of the city, who are wholly sickened and disgusted with events which transpired in Creggan, a form of escapism as they gathered together in a united cause.
Moreover, the performance of the Candy Stripes against the runaway league leaders gave them something to be proud of amidst the shameful actions of the so-called dissident republican who took the life of the gifted writer as the TV cameras gave a glimpse of what this vibrant city has to offer.
City boss Declan Devine, a proud Creggan man, said he hoped the performance showed Derry in a good light after a “tough 24 hours” and that the “positivity” shown on the night can “help some of our supporters” through this time of adversity.
Certainly, this type of brave and passionate display from his football team and its supporters was representative of the people of Derry and not the mindless murderer who took the life of an innocent on the streets of Creggan, which poignantly overlooks Derry City’s ground.
“There’s a lot of Creggan men in the team,” said Devine afterwards. “We love where we come from and are very proud of where we come from. Ultimately, tonight was about football for us and that’s all we get involved in.
“We have fantastic footballers and fantastic people and the people of Derry have really rallied behind us and long may that continue. “This city is magnificent,” he added. “It’s a lovely place to live, it’s a wonderful place to have grown up. So whenever people are trying to bring it down, I’m extremely proud of a group of young men in there tonight who have given everything for a huge football club. When the cameras were on them they stood up.
“It’s been a tough 24 hours for the city but what these boys bring is a vibrancy. The TV cameras will have seen that tonight but it’s every game. Whenever we play it’s very high intense games we play. We’re relentless in our ability to drive forward and our hunger to defend.
“It’s been a tough 24 hours,” he repeated. “But hopefully the positivity the guys have shown tonight can help some of our supporters. Our supporters were magnificent. Our supporters are so important to us and if we can continue that rapport between our players and supporters and the effort and commitment to strive to bring this football club back to the top end of Irish football then hopefully we can have a good year with that. I’m extremely proud of my players.”
Devine, his assistant, Kevin Deery, Ciaron Harkin and Patrick McClean all represented the Creggan estate with pride on the night as their passion for their home town shone through both on the pitch and on the touchline.
An electric atmosphere as kick-off approached was interrupted momentarily for a minute’s silence which was impeccably observed for the late McKee and served as a reminder of the events which overshadowed such an exciting sporting clash.
One couldn’t help but wonder how it effected the mental preparations of the team, particularly those from the Creggan area and indeed the city.
The way Devine and his team have galvanised this squad and the fans after just four short months together has been hugely impressive. And their battling performance against a Rovers side who took advantage of a rare clear-cut chance in the match, was admirable under the circumstances.
This city has shown in the past how a tragedy and a shared pain can bring a community together but Friday night’s display by the Candy Stripes was something we can all be proud of and a sample of what makes Derry so special.
Football is only a game but it can serve a greater purpose and it did so at the weekend.
Derry City Football Club released the following statement, offering its condolences to the family and friends of the late McKee.
“Derry City Football Club wishes to extend our deepest condolences to the partner, family and friends of Lyra McKee following her tragic and untimely death last night,” the club said.
“Lyra had become a part of the Brandywell community and her death has stunned an entire city with which this club has a deep association.
“As a club, the media are part of our wider family and we recognise the work Lyra was involved in, and in which she ultimately lost her young life.
“May her gentle soul rest in peace.”