Gavin Dykes recalls Derry City's Champions League tie in Maribor
DERRY CITY were reigning League of Ireland champions and had just caused a seismic shock by defeating Glasgow Celtic in an Irish international tournament at Lansdowne Road in the summer of 1997!
Belief and confidence in Felix Healy’s talented squad was at an all-time high leading into the club’s UEFA Champions League tie against NK Maribor at Brandywell Stadium on July 23rd - just eight days after that historic win over the Hoops.
Games against a Paulo Di Canio inspired Celtic and Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, who had just finished runners-up to Man United in the English Premiership, in front of 18,000 people in Dublin, was seen as the perfect preparation for a game against the Slovenians.
And so no one was surprised when Derry began strongly, bossing possession with Liam Coyle testing the visiting keeper, Simeunovic, with a powerful 40-yard strike as Sean Hargan later hit the crossbar.
However, the Candy Stripes were left stunned after a carefully orchestrated ‘smash and grab’ win as Maribor twice struck on the counter attack.
Gregor Zidan fired in the first and when Gavin Dykes slipped in possession 15 minutes before the end, Damjan Gasjer pounced as the Slovenian champions took a 2-0 lead back home and Derry crashed unceremoniously back to earth.
“It wouldn’t have been hard to beat me for pace,” laughes Dykes, reflecting back on his one and only European experience with Derry City.
“It was the first time we probably experienced a team playing counter attacking football on us. They were very quick. But I remember the Maribor game was really exciting as it was the Champions League and we were very disappointed with the result.
“Maribor were technically very good. They had pace in wide areas and up front. They weren’t that big a club but they qualify for the Champions League now all the time and are a really big club.
“It as a huge deal and massive for the people in the city at the time.”
It wasn’t Dykes first venture into Europe as he was a central part of the Sligo team which defeated Floriana of Malta over two legs in the first round of the European Cup Winners’ Cup during the 1994-95 season.
They met Belgium outfit, FC Brugge in the second round and were unfortunate not to get a result in a performance Dykes felt didn’t get enough plaudits at the time.
“We beat Floriana - a Maltese side. We went there and drew 2-2 with them and beat them 1-0 at home. We qualified for the next round and played Brugge. I don’t think we ever got the credit we deserved for it back then. It was a bunch of part-time players against a full-time set-up.
“We should’ve beaten them out there too but they scored to make it 2-2 in the last minute. We beat them 1-0 here, John ‘Jumbo’ Brennan scored for us.
"That was my first experience in Europe and that probably stood to me when I went back into a European tie. You have an idea of what it is about.”
However, nothing would’ve prepared him for the trip into the former Yugoslavian republic for the second leg of the Champions League tie with Maribor at the Ljudski Vrt Stadium.
Surviving largely on a diet of McDonald’s fast-food as the team opted to avoid the local delicacies on offer, the nutritional obstacles weren’t the only challenge facing Healy’s troops who were trailing by those two goals.
The tie looked dead and buried and Besiktas manager, former Wales and Liverpool striker, John Toshack, who was in attendance during the first leg at Brandywell wasn’t expecting Derry to turn it around as his side prepared for the meeting with Maribor in the next round.
“I’m very surprised Derry City lost the match,” he said after the tie at Brandywell. “I believe it will be very, very difficult for them to come back after this defeat. Having to score three goals without conceding any in Slovenia will be a very tall order.”
That said, the Candy Stripes produced a performance to be proud of as they left the country on the eastern side of the Alps hugely disappointed.
”It was an old communist country so we didn’t know what we were going into,” explained Dykes. “There wasn’t much of a crowd at it. I remember there was a lot of army around us though.
“The food I suppose was different to what we would’ve expected and from what I remember we spent a lot of time at McDonald’s. So to say it was good in terms of nutrition would be wrong,” he laughed.
“We were probably disappointed because we played very well out there and should’ve gotten something out of it,” offered former City centre half.
“I think we were undone by a set-piece from what I can remember. For the game at the Brandywell we were caught a bit off-guard on the counter attack. But out there we played very well and I know Liam (Coyle) was outstanding.
“We sat in a bit and counter attacked on them and they didn’t really know what to do. I remember coming off the pitch and we were all disappointed we didn’t get a result out of it.”
Dykes had a header cleared off the line during the game while Tom Mohan, Peter Hutton and Hargan also missed glorious chances to get back in the tie.
Ultimately Derry were undone by a set-piece as Oskar Dobne scored the only goal of the game - Maribor progressing 3-0 on aggregate. The scoreline certainly didn’t reflect the two legged affair.
“Those were special times back then,” recalled Dykes. “We were close to upsetting them out there and, as I said, we were disappointed we didn’t. They struggled against us but the tie was short of half dead from the Brandywell.”
Dykes and Derry talisman, Coyle impressed so much on the night that Maribor officials reportedly enquired about their availability, according to the Sligo native.
It was never a move likely to materialise for the duo who didn’t exactly dream of a quiet life in the former Yugoslavian country which had secured its independence just seven years previously.
“I think there was talk afterwards that Maribor was interested in signing us but we gave that a short heave, I can tell you that. We definitely weren’t going there! I don’t think we would’ve survived long out there moving in together,” he joked.
“I really enjoyed the game in Maribor because we played really well and I played well myself that night.”
City manager, Healy certainly felt his side could’ve won the tie had it not been for a ‘slight mix-up’ between himself and the club’s representative in Geneva when it was decided the Candy Stripes would switch the order of the draw and concede home advantage for the second leg.
“Due to a problem with communication to Geneva our representative agreed the switch before I could make contact,” said Healy after the game. “It’s a little disappointing but nothing can be done about it at this stage.
“I believe the tie was lost in the Brandywell when their only two shots reaped two goals. But I felt the lads played with great commitment and courage out here and again, we should have got something from the game.”
Derry emerged with their heads held high, particularly considering the heavy defeats inflicted on Bohemians, Crusaders and Coleraine in European competition the same week.
It was, according to Journal reporter, Arthur Duffy, at the time, ‘on a par with that tremendous display in Arnhem a few seasons ago when holding Vitesse scoreless in Holland.’
The performance didn’t come as a total surprise for Dykes and his teammates considering the talent in the squad.
“I think that was a special bunch of players,” he said. “I always say it was one of the most enjoyable couple of years that I had playing football, playing in that team.
"It was such a special bond between the players and in fairness to Felix he let us manage ourselves. There was a lot of experience in that dressing room.
“When I first went to Derry in pre-season I realised we had a good bunch of players. When Liam Coyle is in your team you have an advantage over anybody. He was just so, so talented and that was on one leg. He was just special.
"I went from kicking him and trying to catch him to just admiring him. I’ve been lucky enough to play with some great footballers but he’s the best I ever shared a pitch with by miles.
“And then you had Heggsy (Paul Hegarty) who complimented ‘Pizza’ (Peter Hutton) so well because he did all the dirty stuff. ‘Pizza’ did all the running in behind and scored a lot of goals for us.
“Myself and (Paul Curran) Curny got on well together and knew when one was out of position the other covered. It was good combination all the way through the team. We probably under-achieved with that team.”
Dykes who played 78 games, scoring three goals for Derry, went on to manage the team from October 3rd, 2003 until May 29th, 2004 - a total of 34 games in charge of the Candy Stripes - a team which holds a special place in his heart.
“Derry played a special part in my career, I never had a bad day in it,” said the Sligo man who is currently on Warrenpoint Town’s coaching staff under Barry Gray.
“It’s a really special place and always has been. Myself and my wife and family were always treated so well by the people of Derry.”
That championship winning Derry team was dismantled after the 1997/98 season but those golden years at Brandywell were among the career highlights of Dykes.
“I can always say I played in the Champions League which is a huge thing and, for me personally, it was probably one of the highlights of my career even though the results didn’t go our way.”
It would be six years before Derry returned to the European stage when they met Apoel Nicosia of Cyprus in the UEFA Cup - the same season Dykes replaced Dermot Keely as club manager.
It’s there where we take up the story of Derry City’s European Dance next week!