'Derry City turned my life around' - insists legendary striker Owen Da Gama

Fans favourite Owen Da Gama admitted he was both proud and a little jealous when Derry City completed the domestic treble in 1989.

By Kevin McLaughlin
Tuesday, 7th September 2021, 5:27 pm

The South African striker, who joined the Candy Stripes in 1985 and became an instant favourite amongst the terraces at the Brandywell, departed the season Jim McLaughlin’s men won the Premier Division title, League Cup and FAI Cup.

“After I left, Derry City won the treble. I kept following how they were going and I was not only happy for the players but the people too. They deserved it,” he insisted.

“I was elated, I told my friends I used to play for that team. Honestly, I felt a bit jealous I was not part of it. But more than that, I was just happy for the people of Derry.”

Striker Owen Da Gama.

In advance of Thursday night’s cinema premiere of ‘Different League: The Derry City Story’, the iconic striker reveals his feelings about his time at the club.

“My father knew a lot about the situation in Northern Ireland and he gave me a bit of a background; Ireland was the first country to have embargoes against South Africa so it was quite a sensitive time for me to be there, but my dad told me that I was going there to play soccer and that’s the most important thing,” admitted Da Gama.

“Stay away from politics, he’d say. You are not a politician, you are not qualified to make comments with regards to political issues. Stick to soccer. I don’t remember anyone in Derry, in my whole time there, speaking politics to me - it was all about football.

“There were a bunch of guys who made my landing in Ireland very soft. I remember when I arrived Eddie Mahon was waiting at the airport. He raised his hand and shouted ‘Owen Da Gama!’ and he had this wonderful welcoming smile.

Owen Da Gama.

“I was used to racism in South Africa, and in Belgium, but suddenly I came to Ireland and there was nothing like that. It was really heart-warming, I really felt like I was in a different world.

“If I wrote a book, half the book would be about the people of Derry; they just turned my life around, it changed my whole outlook on life after what I experienced as a kid growing up in South Africa, where you are not even allowed on the pavement - the pavement is only meant for white people - so it becomes deeply embedded in you that there are bad things in life. but in Derry, you were treated like human being, you were treated the same, like everybody else. When I went into a pub I felt the same, I didn’t feel different - so it made me experience something I don’t think my dad got to experience.”

The 60-year-old, who played 79 games and scored 50 goals for the Candy Stripes, became a massive fans favourite when he scored a hat-trick in the Shield Final victory over Longford Town, at Sligo, as Derry secured their first piece of silverware in the League of Ireland during their debut season in 1985/86.

“Every time I got the ball and heard the fans screaming I got this injection of something special and it made me do things I never did before,” he explained. “I could go past four or five players at a time, I could score goals from angles I normally wouldn’t score. I’d reward them. I’d jump on the fence and say ‘thank you’.

“They made me feel like a megastar, but at the same time like I was part of their families. When visiting people’s homes I saw Owen Da Gama bedsteads, Owen Da Gama pyjamas, Owen Da Gama jumpers and beanie hats. I heard about an Owen Da Gama burger. It became contagious and it propelled me to do better.

“I had the greatest respect for both Noel King and Jim McLaughlin. Noel King appreciated fans and got the most out of us. You’ve got to play for those fans, he’d say.

“He’d get us to use our skills and even to practice doing a lap of honour in training! Jim McLaughlin had the knowledge and experience. He knew how to win cups and how to get silverware. So Noel provided the groundwork and then Jim took it to the next level, so it all worked out well for Derry.

“At my farewell event the Derry fans asked for my jacket, my tie, my shirt and eventually my trousers. There is just something very special about the Derry City fans and nobody can take that away from them.”

The extended 82-minute film edition, will have a one-week cinema run at the Brunswick Moviebowl from September 9th to 15th. Tickets are now on sale at Brunswick Moviebowl.