Felix Healy reflects on Derry City's last league title win - 25 years on!

FELIX HEALY ranks Derry City’s 1996/97 League of Ireland title-winning campaign as his ‘greatest achievement’ in football.

By Simon Collins
Monday, 21st February 2022, 1:30 pm
Updated Monday, 21st February 2022, 1:33 pm
Derry City's title winning manager Felix Healy.
Derry City's title winning manager Felix Healy.

It’s a bold statement from a man who played for Northern Ireland against Honduras in the 1982 World Cup in Spain when replacing Martin O’Neill as a second-half substitute.

In doing so he became the first player in either of the two Irish domestic leagues to play at a major international tournament!

Seven years later the Brandywell native infamously captained his hometown club to an historic, never-to-be-repeated domestic treble in 1989 but the memorable campaign 25 years ago where he managed Derry City to the ‘Holy Grail’ of the league championship against all the odds remains the most ‘satisfying’ moment of his career.

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Derry City players celebrate in the dressing room after clinching the league title.

Derry City Football Club has won a league championship on just THREE occasions in two different jurisdictions since its formation in 1928 and Healy has been an integral part of two of those historic triumphs. In fact, as a young Candy Stripes supporter Healy attended almost every home match in Derry’s Irish League title-winning season in 1965.

As a manager and a player he knows what it takes to win a league title and he’s well aware of how special a moment it is when clinching it for your hometown club. Next April it will be the 25th anniversary of Derry’s 2-0 win over St Patrick’s Athletic at Brandywell which sealed their second ever League of Ireland crown.

The Lone Moor Road club romped across the line, winning the title by an incredible 10 points from their nearest rivals Bohemians.

“That was easily the biggest achievement in my football career, to win the league by 10 points with a team I basically put together,” said Healy. “And particularly given what happened in Athlone two years previous (Derry’s title bid was foiled by Athlone on the final day of the season as Dundalk won the league).

Sean Hargan and captain Peter Hutton celebrate with supporters on the pitch at Brandywell after clinching the league title in 1997.

"That was the most satisfying moment I had, there’s no doubt about that. It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years. “We never lost a league match away from home that year. I think we only lost two league matches in total and both were at the Brandywell. One of them didn’t matter as we already had the league won. It was an incredible year on so many fronts.

“It was quite a time to be involved. It was a really top side and almost everybody at that time was almost at the peak of their powers.”

No-one would have predicted a quarter of a century would pass without completing that feat again. And yet Derry City have endured 25 barren years and still await League of Ireland title No. 3.

The club has employed 10 different managers since Healy’s resignation in October 1998 with Stephen Kenny, Peter Hutton and Declan Devine taking the hotseat on two occasions. Kenny has come closest to emulating Jim McLaughlin and Healy but twice fell short.

The triumphant Derry City team after clinching the league title with a win over St Pat's at the Brandywell.

In the intervening period, from 1997 to 2021, no fewer than EIGHT different teams have won the league with Shelbourne, Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk winning it five times apiece!

Healy, with his razor-sharp memory, recalls telling his players after lifting the title in ’97 to embrace the wild celebrations which followed that win against the Saints at Brandywell as the magnitude of the achievement certainly was not lost on him.

“I said that at the time, in the aftermath of winning the league, ‘you’ve got to really embrace what we’ve achieved because it doesn’t come along too often and God only knows the next time that we’ll do it’. That has turned out to be the case. I said afterwards to enjoy it because league titles don’t come around too often.”

Healy quit as manager the following year following a poor start to the league campaign having been at the helm since December 1994 but did he ever believe that title-winning season wouldn’t be repeated for 25 years and counting?

“You wouldn’t have thought the year we won the treble we wouldn’t have won anything the following year,” he said. “Derry has been in existence for nearly 100 years and have only won three leagues. Take Coleraine for example, where I played for seven years, they’ve won one league in their entire history. So it’s very, very difficult for a non-Belfast team or a non-Dublin team to win the league, that’s where the biggest populations are.”

For a club as geographically isolated in the North West as Derry is, winning the league title is a special achievement and Healy explains how the ’89 and ’97 squads are forever imprinted in the fabric of the club.

“It’s very difficult to tell a young person you’re managing who is say 25 years old that in 10 years’ time you won’t be able to run like you can run now. It’s very difficult to get that message across. It’s also difficult to get that message across to the players when you tell them that if you win this league people will be talking about it in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years from now.

“It becomes part of the fabric of the football club. You become part of the history of the football club. So you’re saying this to the players at the time as part of the whole psychology of it all. The reality is we are still talking about it 25 years on.

“I can still remember the sensation I felt. The worst day in my football life was Athlone and my best day was lifting the league title at the Brandywell. I was lucky enough to win the league twice and both times were at the Brandywell. I remember watching the celebrations and particularly the young people who will be talking about that moment to their grandkids, telling them ‘I was there’.

“It was the same for me being at the ’64 Irish Cup final and being lifted over the turnstiles. We don’t win like that often. But 1997 was an incredible season."

Winning by a record-breaking 10 points with games to spare was indeed remarkable but how hard is it to guide a team to a title given the many obstacles during the course of a season?

“That year, there were so many things that went into being a title-winning team. You’ve got to have the desire, you’ve got to have the hunger and mentality. One of the best days I was ever involved in was down in Cork when we beat them 1-0, which was arguably one of the best games I’ve ever seen in the League of Ireland with the atmosphere and everything else. When we beat them down there that basically knocked them out of the running for the league.

“It’s a big effort. To win a league title is incredible. For example, there’s a big difference between playing the first match of the season and playing when there’s six or seven games to go. It’s a different kettle of fish.

“It’s more than about having ability. You’ve got to have the ability to play but it’s a battle against the opposition who are trying to stop you from playing. It’s a battle with yourself. The closer you get to the finishing line the harder it becomes. There’s so many questions that are asked by any player in that particular situation. Do you have the balls to carry it through?

“I know myself, you could see when people started to become weak. There could be one or two characters who would surprise you in a good way and one or two people who would surprise you in a different way. Maybe some people are not as strong as they would like you to think they are and vice-versa.

“It’s a great learning curve and it was interesting to watch that develop. On the back of all that you’re trying to win football matches. I laughed at Damien Duff (Shels manager) last week saying he was surprised that management was 24/7and there’s nothing the FAI coaching badges teach you about that and that’s very true. There’s so much more to management.”

There’s been much talk about a potential title bid for Derry City this season given Ruaidhri Higgins’ stellar work in the transfer market but Healy believes the City boss will need a lot of good fortune if his troops are to pip reigning champions Shamrock Rovers.

“It’s going to be very, very difficult to compete with Shamrock Rovers. There is a great expectation around Derry and there’s been a lot of money spent - the most that’s probably been spent on any Derry City Football Club team.

“Michael Duffy coming back and a few others and the expectation levels have gone through the roof. Derry on paper should do a hell of a lot better than they’ve done in the last number of years but it ain’t that easy. Even though Ruaidhri has put this team together, in his heart of hearts he will know, he’s not sure until they get underway, how it’s going to pan out. Duffy,

Patching and McEleney were at Dundalk last year but Dundalk struggled. So it depends on a whole lot of other things. Will they fit in with other players? That’s the kind of thing you have to take into consideration as a manager. Yes they have better players than they’ve had for a while but they’ve got to gel. It doesn’t matter how good or bad the manager is, winning football matches is what gives the players the belief and confidence that they can go on and win it.”

Derry faced into a tough start to the campaign against two teams who have dominated recent seasons in Dundalk and Rovers. An entertaining and encouraging 2-2 draw at Oriel Park set up a fascinating clash at Brandywell this Friday night and Healy warns of the importance of getting up-and-running quickly if they’re to sustain a title challenge.

“I think it’s important that they start well and they’ve got a tough start. There’s a hell of a lot more pressure on Ruaidhri now than there was last year. There’s going to be more pressure on Michael Duffy and Patrick McEleney and other guys in the team than in their previous times at the club because the expectations have gone through the roof and they’ve got to deal with that pressure.

“It’s important to get results early. The year we won the league we started off at Finn Harps and scored a late winner at Finn Park and the buzz in the dressing afterwards was incredible. We should’ve won the match but we nicked it at the end. We went to Dundalk and were 2-0 down and ended up winning 4-2. The buzz in the dressing room after those first two matches was incredible.”

“You’ve got the momentum and the belief and you build and build on that. You don’t want to be three or four matches in and having only won one game. Then you’ve got to go on a run where maybe you have to win four or five of your next matches. And then the pressure is building because you’re playing catch-up. That’s why it’s important to get off to a good start.”

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