Eusebio, Sven Goran Eriksson and Benfica's galacticos meet Derry City's treble winners
WEDNESDAY, September 13, 1989 - a date and a football match which will unquestionably go down as one of the greatest nights in the history of Derry City Football Club!
‘It was ‘an occasion when the aristocrats of Portugal had their supremacy challenged by a sparkling Derry City performance’, read ‘Journal’ reporter Kieron Tourish’s report as the two-times champions of Europe, Benfica defeated the Candy Stripes by the narrowest of margins.
“For me, I think it was the best performance from any Derry team in Europe,” City legend Liam Coyle claims as he reflects on that unforgettable night over three decades later.
Considering the star-studded international talent amongst Sven Goran Eriksson’s side and the fact they were among the modern greats of that era, it was no mean feat that Derry were left genuinely disappointed they didn’t get something from that glamorous tie.
Derry City had swept the board and completed an historic treble that year to earn their place at the top table of European competition.
Both Coyle and teammate, Paul ‘Storky’ Carlyle had learned they were paired with Benfica while holidaying in Tenerife that summer.
“We heard from someone in the bar that night we’d got Benfica,” recalled Coyle who was just 21 at the time. “We couldn’t believe it. We had a great time out there when we heard that. I remember thinking this is what it’s all about. This is why I’m a footballer.”
It was a night which might never have happened, however, if the late Martin McGuinness hadn’t intervened. The former Deputy Minister of N. Ireland had been tipped off about a bomb found close to the stadium at the City Cemetery and managed to avert disaster by disarming it as the match got the green light just hours before kick-off.
And what a treat the 12,500 in attendance enjoyed as Benfica, who had won consecutive European Cups in 1961 and ‘62 graced the Brandywell pitch.
Under the guidance of Eriksson, who would go on to manage Man City and England, Benfica were gifted with Brazilian stars Ricardo, Aldair and Valdo and were short odds to win the tournament outright.
With club ambassador and legend Eusebio, the ‘Black Panther of Benfica’ greeting the crowd before kick-off, there was a special atmosphere in the ground as the city came to a standstill.
“I had been to Cardiff the year before as part of the squad and I saw the European night at the Brandywell,” recalled Coyle. “That was unbelievable but then when Benfica came it was just a different level altogether.
“There was a different feel about the city and the fans. I don’t remember too much about the buildup to be quite honest but I remember the match vividly.
“I think it was the first live European game that was shown live on RTE. There must’ve been 12,000 or 13,000 at the Brandywell. It was an unbelievable experience over the two legs and it’s one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played in, especially the one at the Brandywell.”
Eriksson had been to watch Derry play against Shelbourne in the weeks leading up to the first leg encounter but Benfica weren’t exactly prepared to be put on the backfoot so early in the game.
Five minutes into the tie Coyle picked out Felix Healy but his shot clipped the post. Alex Krstic also spurned a chance and just before the interval the big Serbian striker’s header was parried onto the stanchion by Benfica’s keeper, Silvino.
Derry went into the break believing they could cause an upset of epic proportions. On the hour mark, however, Benfica made the breakthrough as Jonas Thern - who would go on to captain Sweden to third place at the 1994 World Cup Finals - drove a shot which deflected off Pascal Vaudequin and past Tim Dalton.
Benfica doubled their lead in controversial circumstances as Ricardo’s shot was seemingly headed clear by Kevin Brady but the linesman claimed the ball had already crossed the line.
Derry were down but not out and on 74 minutes Carlyle netted what would be one of the Candy Stripes’ most famous goals and the club’s first European goal as a League of Ireland team.
Coyle found Healy whose shot rebounded off the post and Carlyle was there to hammer home from the edge of the box.
“It’s a nice thing to score against such a team,” said ‘Storky’ after the game. “All in all it was a great thing for the team. I was over the moon when it went in because I think we may have been getting a bit tired at that stage. But the goal meant that the adrenalin took over and that kept us going.”
And 31 years on the midfielder still holds fond memories of that strike, despite feeling it was a missed opportunity.
“It’s a highlight for Derry City fans but a disappointment for me because we lost the game. We did ourselves real justice because we gave them a game.
“If Felix had his shooting boots on we could’ve scored more. Their second goal wouldn’t have counted in today’s game and the other one came off Pascal and wrong footed Tim.
“Having said that, it’s a proud moment to have scored in the European Cup. I just remember Felix hitting the post and me following up like I always did. It’s a nice memory.”
Derry finished the game strongly and were left wondering how they hadn’t won the game when the final whistle sounded. It was a disappointing defeat and an enormous task awaited Derry at the Estadio da Luz in the second leg.
Jim McLaughlin’s message was one of hope: “As long as we came out of this tie with credit then that’s the main thing. I think a lot of people will give us credit for our performance. At this stage we are looking forward to the return leg and playing in such a splendid stadium.”
Eriksson had enquired about Coyle after the match in a conversation with chairman Ian Doherty but disaster struck for the striker between the two legs as he sustained a knee injury in Dundalk on the Sunday which would change the trajectory of his career. He would play through the pain barrier for the second leg in Lisbon - an opportunity not be thrown away.
Coyle was positioned in midfield and admits the game passed him by as Derry were handed a ‘football lesson’ in front of 65,000 fanatical supporters.
“For me I think the first leg was the best performance from any Derry team in Europe, considering that Benfica team went on to reach the final. When we went out there it was a different ball game altogether,” explained Coyle.
“Jim played me in the middle of the field and I was carrying that injury I picked up at Dundalk in between going out to Benfica. He played five in the middle to try and get a hold of the ball. We were grand for 10 minutes but after that we were just chasing shadows.
“We contained them really well until I think it was just before half-time and then another deflection and it looped over Tim Dalton’s head.
“Second half we just couldn’t get near them. They made the pitch that big, their movement, their control, their technique on the ball, the way they ran off people, it was just unbelievable. Even though you’re watching it, it was still enjoyable to play in and watch players like that.
“I remember going out there and they took us to watch them training. They were training at a ground like the Brandywell and there were about 5,000 people watching them training. It was unreal.”
At the Stadium of Light there was a cauldron of noise but Carlyle claims he was unmoved by the atmosphere and explains how the treble winners were simply outclassed.
Derry lost 4-0 thanks to goals from Magnusson, Vata, Ricardo and Aldair - the latter’s from 30 yards.
With six minutes to go Krstic missed from the penalty spot which ended a bad night for the Foylesiders.
“I was never intimidated going to a ground,” said Storky. “When we went to Benfica after the 2-1 loss at Brandywell they had this drum roll in the old Stadium of Light. They had wooden seats and the noise from the drum roll there was something like 60 or 70 thousand at it.
“It was like The Charge of the Light Brigade. I remember nutmegging the left winger and the Portuguese international left back put me through the advertising board as if to say; ‘no, no, no. Don’t do that again!’
“The heat was stifling and there was a bit of a bad atmosphere as well because it was 10 of us against 11 of them as Krstic was playing for himself,” claimed the Creggan man. “He was trying to get a move away from Derry and insisted on taking the penalty as well. And he nearly put it into the Algarve!”
“It was a disjointed performance over there because he destroyed it in my opinion. Alex is a lovely fella and we both get on really well but I believe he destroyed the away leg because of his selfishness.”
A 6-1 aggregate defeat didn’t tell the whole story. And for Carlyle he could take pleasure in knowing he scored one of only three goals conceded by Benfica that season which included Frank Riykaard’s winning goal in the final as Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan retained their crown.
Derry’s European adventure was shortlived but one which left a lasting footprint for all involved as the Galacticos of Benfica met the Candy Stripes’ famous treble winners.
“Will we ever see an evening like it at the Brandywell again?” questioned ‘Journal’ reporter at the time, Mark McFadden. ‘A team of soccer superstars reputed to be worth in the neighbourhood of £26 million taking on Derry City’s bunch of footballing misfits.’
The answer was an emphatic ‘no!’ While there have been some outstanding European matches at the Lone Moor Road venue in the 31 years since, including the visit of PSG some 17 years later, none have been as magical or as colourful as that 2-1 defeat in front of the legendary Eusebio and the Portuguese champions.
Getting up close to World Cup winner, Aldair and Co. at the historic Estadio da Luz also remains among the highlights of Coyle’s illustrious playing career.
“You only appreciate how good a team and how good their players were at that standard when you go out and play in places like that.”
Seven years would pass until Derry City were back on their European travels, once more as champions of Ireland.
Next week we reflect back on the Candy Stripes’ UEFA Champions League qualifier against NK Maribor of Slovenia.