Will Derry City’s ambitions out-grow the Brandywell?

Last month’s FAI Cup Final was a magical occasion for Derry City supporters - but also flagged up something which had previously been considered impossible.

When Derry City burst onto the League of Ireland in 1985, crowds of 8-10,000 became the norm at many home games at the Brandywell - and support remained at that level until the bubble inevitably began to deflate in the early 1990s.

Supporters of a certain vintage look back on those heady days with great fondness, and it has long been believed that we would never see those sort of numbers again at either a domestic Irish football game or a Derry match.

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That was until Sunday 13th November - when a crowd of over 20,000 Candystriped-supporters descended upon Dublin. It was not just the biggest away crowd Derry has ever brought to a cup final, but it was the largest number of people that has ever assembled anywhere to support the club - full-stop.

The Derry attendance came as a surprise to many both locally and in Irish football, and it points to a welcome challenge facing the club as it continues to move forwards.

Almost every home game Derry played this year drew a sell-out crowd, and with the club now warning that demand for next year’s season tickets is likely to be at an all-time high the ‘full house’ signs look set to become a regular feature at the Brandywell yet again.

Such frenzied spectator demand is obviously very welcome - but the Brandywell’s low capacity means that no-one actually knows what the current ceiling of Derry City’s support really is.

How many fans could the club attract if it had a stadium with a much larger capacity? We just don’t know. Many supporters speculate that demand could max out somewhere in the region of 5,000 for the biggest games, but such assumptions have surely been put into question by the huge crowd that travelled to Dublin for the FAI Cup Final.

Mark Farren Stand at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium.

Could the club aspire to revisit 1980s-levels of support and draw crowds of up to 6,000, 7,000 or 8,000 if the capacity was there to enable it?

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There are four reasons why a return to those sorts of attendances for Derry City is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Firstly - whilst the population of our city was 85,000 in the 1980s, it has increased by 25% since then to now stand at 105,000. There are therefore considerably more people in and around Derry nowadays for the club to appeal to.

Secondly - although this city underperforms economically and has pockets of significant deprivation, income levels here are generally higher now than they were during the 1980s. There is therefore more disposable income locally to spend on things like football matches (not withstanding the current cost of living crisis and the hardship it is causing many).

Third, the nature of Derry’s current support base contrasts significantly with that of 35 years ago. The wave of support the club attracted when it rejoined senior football in 1985 was akin to a form of collective mania - with practically every male in the city from a nationalist background (and quite a few protestants too) swept along to at least one Derry game, even if they had shown no interest in football either before or since. In hindsight those crowds were obviously driven by both novelty and ‘fashion’, and therefore built on sand, so they inevitably began to decline as early as the season after the club won an unprecedented treble in 1989.

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In contrast the current buzz around Derry City feels deeper, more grounded and much more sustainable that then. Success will obviously draw a crowd in itself, and there have been previous periods of high demand for Derry games which then faded back into much smaller crowds again afterwards (e.g. the Stephen Kenny era of the 2000s). But the club these days has also tapped into the heartbeat of the city in a way that it hadn’t managed to do for some time - and that, combined with good results on the pitch, appears to be driving the greatly increased support levels.

Finally - its not just Derry that has experienced expanded crowds recently, as the phenomenon is also happening across Irish football north and south. The domestic game appears to be going through a steady and undeniable growth phase overall, with Derry being just part of that.

Increased support levels are great news - but only if Derry City can take advantage of them. And that is where the limitations of Brandywell Stadium risk serving as a handbrake on the club’s potential and ambitions.

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The ground’s current 3,700 capacity is clearly too low, and plans to increase it to 5,500 by finishing the part-built Mark Farren Stand have been stuck in-limbo since 2017.

A £36m pot of funding for such stadium projects has been ring-fenced at Stormont for almost a decade, but appears to have been held hostage by the recent Communities Minister in an attempt to secure an extra £50m of public funding for the GAA’s Casement Park. Even when this planned expansion of Brandywell is completed, however, the recent growth in supporter demand means it will more than likely still prove too small for Derry City’s needs. And it is also likely to leave the club at a competitive disadvantage too.

Most of the other big League of Ireland teams either already have stadia with a much higher capacity (e.g. Shamrock Rovers 10,000, Cork City 7,500) or have plans in place to get to that stage in the near future (e.g. Bohemians 8,000, Sligo Rovers 6,100).

Even Derry’s closest neighbour Finn Harps is due to start work next year on a new stadium with a capacity of 6,500. And within all of that it’s important to recognise that clubs in the south don’t have VAT levied on their ticket sales either whilst those in NI do, so Derry’s restricted capacity has a double-negative impact upon the club’s income versus competitors. And then we have the ignominy of Coleraine in the NI league planning to develop an 8,000 capacity “North West Regional Stadium”.

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It is therefore clear that even when the Brandywell’s planned expansion is completed, the club will STILL have a stadium that can’t meet supporter demand and is smaller than its competitors.

Given the current layout of Brandywell Stadium, it is hard to see how any further work in future could boost capacity to much above 6,000 without essentially having to knock down most of the ground and start again. And it is unlikely that our cash-strapped council would have an appetite to do that, especially when it spent £7m there as recently as 2018.

There is yet another way that the Brandywell’s restricted capacity will act as a handbrake upon the club, in terms of its ability to contribute economically towards our city.

Derry’s Chairman Philip O’Doherty recently declared publicly that he hopes to see the club reach the group stages of European competition in the coming years, and few would doubt his ability to drive the club on to such unprecedented success.

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However - to host group-stage fixtures requires a ‘Category 4’ stadium, and that necessitates at least 8,000 seats. So if Derry City achieves its publicly stated ambition it will be forced to play home European group games in Dublin, because even an expanded Brandywell is unlikely to be deemed acceptable. Which would mean our city losing out on an influx of overseas visitors and media to attend such high-profile games.

All of this is also before we consider the geographical limitations of Brandywell Stadium - located in a confined site, hemmed in by housing, with limited car parking and access roads not designed to cope with significant traffic; based in a part of town that is not considered ‘neutral’, and which makes it hard for the club to maximise cross-community support etc.

The club is currently in discussions with the Council to secure a temporary increase in the Brandywell’s capacity, which would be a sensible move to maximise the numbers able to attend games right now. But if you accept the analysis I have outlined above, it all points towards a conclusion that I believe can no longer be ignored by Derry City FC. And that is that Brandywell Stadium will not be able to meet the club’s future needs (and arguably also its current ones). In short - Derry City has outgrown its current home.

The stadium therefore risks acting as a handbrake upon the club’s potential, competitiveness and development - limiting its support levels, its matchday and non-matchday income, and its ability to make itself financially sustainable over the long-term. The alternative is to accept that attendances of 5-6,000 must be the maximum that Derry City is allowed to aspire to for decades to come - regardless of demand, and whilst other clubs in the league continue to grow beyond that level.

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And it also means accepting that the elite European football the club craves cannot and will not be hosted in this city.

Brandywell Stadium has commendably served the needs of senior football in this town for almost a century now. But it is surely time for Derry City to begin considering where else might be better suited to meet its future needs and provide a more suitable and flexible home for the long-term development of senior football here over the next 100 years.