‘Every game’s an away game to us’: The Republic’s Derry fans

A city always fond of football has found added voice thanks to ‘the James McClean effect’

As the final whistle blew in Copenhagen, members the Derry branch of the Republic of Ireland Supporters Club were turning their attention to Tuesday night's deciding fixture.

They're taking 100 people to the second leg - including two supporters of the Northern Ireland team - and could have brought three times as many.

A hotel has been booked out, and they’re bringing the band from one of the club’s favourite pubs, Peadar O’Donnell’s, with them for the après-match entertainment.

"Every game's an away game to us," says Jim Bradley, who gathered with other club members to watch the first tie against Denmark in the River Inn in Derry.


“It’s accommodation, it’s the expense, it’s two days off work to go to a match in Dublin.”

But, he says, it’s worth the hassle. “The atmosphere, the craic, it’s unbelievable. Just being with your friends, having a drink - it’s a great release at times.”

The bar on Shipquay Street, the long, steep street in the centre of the city which slopes down towards the Guildhall and the city walls, is a popular spot for big match days.

The strength of support locally for the Republic is a testament, says Bradley, to Derry's love of football. But there's also the James McClean effect. He along with Shane Duffy, and manager Martin O'Neill have helped push membership enquiries through the roof and forced the branch to close its books to new members.

“People love to get involved; it’s a Derry thing,” Bradley says.

GAA and soccer

Greg McArdle is another fan to join club supporters in the bar. Over the noise of cheers and groans as the match is played, he explains that he is originally from South Armagh, but has been living in Derry for 20 years.

“At home it’s more GAA than soccer. If you go out to watch a match it’s about having the craic and a few pints, but here you can’t interrupt, it’s serious.

“Up here everybody wears their colours, everybody goes out in them, there’s no embarrassment about it,” he adds.

Just before half time there is a chance. The bar is on its feet but then hands fall onto heads in disappointment; there’s no goal.

Time to “rearrange the deckchairs,” as one punter put it.

For the confident, apparently Russian hats are already on sale, £15 each.

The conversation moves on to the Northern Ireland result on Thursday night.

"Wouldn't it be a shame if nobody from the island of Ireland makes it to Russia, " says McArdle.

"The Republic is our team," adds Lawrence Connor, "but Derry has had men from the city playing for Northern Ireland in the past, people like Martin O'Neill, so a lot of people followed them.

“I’d like to think things are changing. I saw some of the Northern Ireland fans interviewed on TV and they said they’d like to see the Republic get through too.”

“I support the Republic because I’m a nationalist,” says 71-year-old Brian O’Reilly.

He’s been a fan since he was a child, and has been travelling to Dublin for home games since the 1960s.

"There wasn't much encouragement for us to go up to Windsor Park, and I wouldn't have felt welcome there quite honestly.

“People ask why James McClean won’t wear the poppy. He’s explained why, and said for him it’s a matter of principle.

“He’s a hero in my eyes, he’s a hero to the people. He has a heart like a lion. When he puts that shirt on, he puts his heart into it.”

It is the same for O’Reilly. “When I put my club shirt on, I feel that bit more Irish.”

Army checkpoints

He recalls "the old days", describing how buses full of supporters would be stopped for hours at the checkpoint at the border in Aughnacloy.

“They [the British army] were doing it for badness, they knew where were coming from and we knew they would have given us grief for it, but we would never have taken our shirts off.

“Young people now have never experienced what we experienced,” he says.

O’Reilly is concerned by talk of a hard border post-Brexit, but says he doesn’t believe it will last.

“All that talk of Northern Ireland staying in the single market and the customs union: Well, Britain’s put a stop to that.

“I think there’ll be a lot of problems if there’s a border, especially in South Armagh. I think people won’t tolerate it.”

“The border doesn’t exist. We’re as Irish as anybody from Kerry,” chips in Bradley.

Amidst a chorus of Olé, Olé, Olé after the game finished, one confident fan could be overheard saying: “The bookies have Ireland as favourites to win at home.”

The members of the supporters club shake hands across the table and clink glasses at a job well done.

“I’m delighted. Martin O’Neill got his tactics spot on,” says Bradley.

“They went there to do what they were supposed to do, keep Denmark from scoring, now back to the Aviva and we’ve a twelfth man there in terms of the fans; that’ll make a huge difference.

“We were very nervous, but we’re very confident now.

“I’m away to buy my Russian hat.”