A European Super League? The Derry City story shows what being a soccer fan is really about

TV: Different League is a timely chronicle of Derry’s mid-1980s League of Ireland arrival

Different League: young fans at Derry City’s match against Home Farm in 1988. Photograph: INMC/Hulton/Getty

Different League: young fans at Derry City’s match against Home Farm in 1988. Photograph: INMC/Hulton/Getty

 

Several hours after a dozen of Europe’s biggest and greediest soccer franchises unveiled plans for an NFL-style breakaway competition, the BBC fittingly broadcast Different League: The Derry City Story (BBC Two, Monday).

A moving celebration of real soccer for real fans, the documentary chronicles the arrival of Derry in the League of Ireland in the mid-1980s.

Going south was a chance for the club to begin again. Sectarian violence and the shadow of the Troubles had led to their departure from the IFA-run Irish League north of the Border. But if denied the opportunity to play Linfield and Cliftonville, could they instead test their mettle against the likes of Cork City and Dundalk?

This is more than a feelgood sporting story. For the people of Derry the team represented an escape from the conflict that defined their home in the eyes of the world.

The extraordinary tale is tracked with verve. We meet Tony O’Doherty, Terry Harkin, Eamonn McLaughlin and Eddie Mahon, the “Gang of Four” Derry soccer stalwarts who move heaven and earth – and even bring around Fifa and the IFA – in their ultimately successful attempt to rekindle the club in the League of Ireland. The Dublin media is, meanwhile, wooed via a champagne-fuelled press conference at the Burlington.

Gang of Four: Derry City stalwarts Tony O’Doherty, Terry Harkin, Eamonn McLaughlin and Eddie Mahon at the Brandywell. Photograph: Stephen Latimer/BBC NI
Gang of Four: Derry City stalwarts Tony O’Doherty, Terry Harkin, Eamonn McLaughlin and Eddie Mahon at the Brandywell. Photograph: Stephen Latimer/BBC NI

The documentary also reminds us of the genius of Jim McLaughlin, the manager who led Derry to glory and whose legacy endures as one of the great minds of the Irish game.

As with any Troubles narrative, there is room for gallows wit. Having qualified for Europe – the sort of rags-to-riches romance that the European Super League wishes to see quashed mercilessly – there are fears an IRA bomb scare could prevent the mighty Benfica travelling to the Brandywell. A call is quickly put in to Martin McGuinness.

“I think it would generally be accepted that Martin might have had more experience and expertise in that particular area than the average Derry City football fan,” notes a wry Eamonn McCann.

The controversy about the European Super League – which threatens to uproot generations of tradition and turn soccer teams into the equivalent of American franchises such as the Anaheim Ducks or the Las Vegas Raiders – has caused some Sky Sports subscribers in Ireland to reassess their idea of “fandom”.

Gaslit for decades into believing that going to the pub or sitting on the couch in their replica strip is the same thing as following a team, they will now, perhaps, see the light. The Derry City Story provides a glimpse of what they are missing – and is a deeply emotive exploration of the thrills, heartache, frustration and, occasionally, boredom bound up in the experience of being a true supporter.

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