LIAM COYLE has always felt an ‘emotional connection’ to Brandywell Stadium having grown up on its doorstep.
As a young boy, the Brandywell native would sneak into the stadium and onto the pitch to kick around a ball and watch from the stands as a supporter as his father, Fay starred for Derry City Football Club in the 1950s and 60s.
The gifted striker went on to emulate his father’s legendary status as part of the 1989 ‘treble’ winning team and has been involved in some of the most special nights at the historic stadium during four spells with his hometown club.
Indeed, Liam remains a familiar face in the crowd in the Southend Park Stand on match days as he fulfils his role as co-commentator on BBC Radio Foyle.
Fittingly, as he reminisced on his playing days at the famous old stadium this week, he was standing on the sidelines watching his son Jack’s Brandywell Harps team defeat Oxford United 2-0 in the Under-16 Derry & District Youth F.A. Final in one of the final matches to be played on the grass surface.
He’s delighted to be involved as ‘Candy Stripe’ players, past and present, gather to take a nostalgic trip down memory lane this Sunday afternoon (k.o. 1p.m.) for one final match before the lights go out at the Lone Moor venue as we know it and work finally begins on the new development early next week.
While much will remain the same, the grass pitch will be dug up and replaced by a new synthetic surface as Derry City begin a new era in their refurbished stadium and Coyle is hopeful the new surroundings inspire a new generation of footballers in the city.
The former City hitman sees the work as a necessary evil but he understands more than most that the grass pitch holds great sentimental value for those players who graced the surface down through the years and he expects Sunday’s match to be a special occasion for all involved as they say a poignant farewell to the hallowed turf which has been the home of Derry City since 1928.
Aged 20, Coyle announced himself to the Brandywell Faithful with a hat-trick on his debut against Cobh Ramblers after coming on as a substitute for Noel Larkin in the 1988-89 treble winning season. His final contribution in a competitive match at the ground was to score a goal which saved City from relegation in December 2003.
He reckons the instalment of a new artificial surface and new stand may take away the ‘mystic’ and ‘magic’ he associates with the old venue, but while it’s the end of an era, it’s the start of a bright brand new day for Derry City, to borrow the words of one famous city fan.
“For me growing up, especially with the connection I had with my father playing here in the 50s and 60s for Derry, it has a real emotional pull for me,” said Coyle.
“I grew up just behind the Southend Park., I used to come in here and play when I was a young fella. I would sneak in and play on the pitch and Colm Curran (former groundsman) used to chase us,” he laughed.
“It’s sentimental for all the people who played here down the years and have all the memories. But it’s about progress and you have to move with the times.
For me growing up, especially with the connection I had with my father playing here in the 50s and 60s for Derry, it has a real emotional pull for me.Liam Coyle
“I’m sure the Council has tried to do what’s best for them as well. I’m sure when it’s all done it will be something for the new generation of players to aspire to play on.”
City fans will have many special memories of Coyle’s playing days including that cheeky nutmeg on World Cup winner, Carlos Puyol when a full strength Barcelona came to town boasting names like Patrick Kluivert, Luis Enrique, Ronaldinho and Marc Overmars.
Real Madrid, Manchester United, Celtic, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur also played at Brandywell down through the years while PSG and Gotenburg were notable opposition at Brandywell in those memorable UEFA Cup qualifiers in 2006.
While games against the world’s best teams were always enjoyable for Coyle, it was winning the league title on April 19th 2007 with victory over St Pat’s with two games to spare in front of 6,000 fans packed inside Brandywell Stadium who came to see the coronation of the champions which was one of the undoubted highlights of Coyle’s City career.
“While the big matches at Brandywell, watching the big clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona were good for the supporters I think for the players playing in cup semi-finals and league title winning matches here at Brandywell would be more important to us.
“There’s a lot of great memories for me as a player and a supporter as well.”
Over 40 players have agreed to participate in Sunday’s farewell game at Brandywell including club legends, Jobby Crossan, Felix Healy, Tony O’Doherty and Noel King.
Coyle is delighted the match, which will raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Society, will feature many of the best players to grace the pitch since the club’s formation in 1928, going back several generations.
“For people like Jobby and Tony Doc who have been about Derry City since the 50s and 60s, to see the likes of them being there and Noel King who played a major role in Derry’s early days here, it will bring back great memories and I’m sure it will be very emotional for a few people.
“I think there’s about three or four generations of players playing on Sunday. You go back to Jobby and then you have the likes of Kevin McKeever and Jack Kaey who played in the early days. Myself, Paul Hegarty and Sean Hargan and then the likes of Kevin Deery and Barry Molloy and the more recent players, It has the makings of a really special occasion.
“The result won’t matter but to see everyone line up at the pitch for one last time will be very special,” he smiled.
It’s fair to say that Coyle, who battled with injuries during his playing days, isn’t the biggest fan of plastic pitches but he understands that it’s the future for football in Ireland.
And it certainly hasn’t done any harm to the likes of Irish League champions, Crusaders or Dundalk who have won back-to-back League of Ireland titles.
“It’s all about cost and pricing and trying to make money,” added Coyle. “I totally understand the Council’s point of view on it.
“They’re not here to look after Derry City Football Club. They have to look after everybody. As a player, it would have been great if they had of kept the grass pitch. When you look at Crusaders, Cliftonville and Dundalk, they’re making money out of the pitches being used all the time so it’s just unfortunate that’s the way the football world is going at the minute.
“It’s very rare they play in grass pitches now. As a player it’s not going to be good for you in the long term but I’m sure when you’re 21 or 22 you don’t think about the long term damage it does.
“For us as players, it’s no good to us now. We’ve had our time here and have been fortunate enough to play here and have great memories.
“But when you look at the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City and teams like that who all had to leave their grounds and move to other grounds, I’m sure it’s a bit of a wrench to begin with.
“And getting work done to the stadium people might feel it takes away a bit of the mystic and the magic of it all but in the long term I think it’s a good thing, When the stadium is all built and everyone sees how well it looks, it could inspire another generation of footballers.”