Derry City’s Devine determined to reconnect the team to the town
The idea of a border reappearing due to Brexit is a future nobody at the club wants to see
Derry City manager Declan Devine: “From the first day in the door I thought we had to get local-based players.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Declan Devine pushes the brochure across the desk in the manager’s office. Derry, city walls, tours, it said. We were in the Brandywell stadium on Thursday afternoon, and Devine was being pressed on identity, Brexit, Derry City, borders and walled-thinking – 4-4-2 was for another time.
“On Sunday we’ll take the players on a Derry walking tour,” says Devine. “There are so many of them new to the city. We will show them the murals. We will go on the walls for the Siege of Derry, look at both sides of it, and try to tell the players what it all means. We will bring in people from the past.
“Because this club means a lot to a lot of people in this city, and we are in the privileged position of representing them.”
The League of Ireland returns next Friday, and Derry City will be at home to UCD. There will be the usual pre-season mix of anticipation and anxiety among those marching down Lone Moor Road to the Brandywell. Their team are 33-1 to be champions.
Above and beyond that, like Thursday’s rainbow over the stadium, there is a bigger picture: geography, politics, peace.
Derry finished third bottom of the League last season, and the manager Kenny Shiels and much of the squad have since departed. In their place Devine, a former player and manager, has returned, and so have some local players such as captain Barry McNamee. Derry City have gone native.
“I watched Derry’s last couple of games [last season],” Devine says. “Two away games at Bray and St Pat’s and there wasn’t one Derry-based player in those games. I thought ‘how has that happened?’
“It’s no fault of the previous manager, he did a fantastic job here and I hold him in the highest esteem. He qualified for Europe twice, won a trophy last year, had the team based in Buncrana for a year as the stadium was built, and he lost Ryan [McBride]. His worth to the club was invaluable.
“From the outside I just saw that it was lacking identity and locality of players. It didn’t feel right. From the first day in the door I thought we had to get local-based players.”
There will be those who think that Derry City can hardly be more immersed in Derry the city. This is a soccer town, and the club is part of the fabric. Free Derry Corner is a goal kick from the stadium, two essential pieces of the place. John Hume is club president. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the club’s admission to the Irish League.
But Devine’s passion was unmistakable. His desire is to reconnect the football team to the town, and vice versa.
His mention of Ryan McBride and then of Mark Farren, two players who died tragically young in the space of 13 months from 2016, brought a reminder of the outpouring of local grief, sympathy and support. A month after Farren’s death, winger Josh Daniels lost his mother, sister, brother-in-law and two nephews in the Buncrana pier incident.
The importance of the club could not be missed then, and today’s players will line up alongside framed shirts of McBride and Farren as they leave the dressing room.
“Going past that Ryan McBride picture or the Mark Farren picture demands that you work hard,” Devine adds.
So those connections exist. They will be reinforced by Devine’s commitment to localism, although, as he says, half the players are not from Derry.
How, for example, he gels Argentinian Gerardo Bruna (28), who left Real Madrid’s youth system for Liverpool in 2007, and who via Accrington Stanley and Ottawa Fury has just arrived at the Brandywell, will dictate results.
And those matter: the professional reality is that all teams and fans need nourishment. Clubs cannot depend on unconditional allegiance forever.
Beyond the walls
These are internal questions. Beyond the Brandywell, beyond the walls, there are others. On March 29th, Derry City are due to host Sligo Rovers. It is Brexit day, and for a club based in one jurisdiction but which plays in another Brexit cannot be passed off as a possible nuisance. It could come to mean a bit more than that.
In the town centre Jim Roddy pointed to a photograph in his office. It is of Derry Celtic, taken in 1898. Roddy had three relatives in the picture: “Boyle was their name, two were players and one was a director. It’s the 1898-99 season and I was involved in the 1998-99 season. It means a lot.”
Derry Celtic were the forerunners of Derry City, and Roddy is a former chairman of the the club which became the Candystripes after the great Billy Gillespie brought some kit over from Sheffield United.
Today Roddy is chief executive of the Derry-Londonderry City Centre Initiative. Officially the football club does not wish to comment on Brexit and its potential effects, and Roddy understands. But he has met Theresa May and Northern Secretary Karen Bradley this week, and he is aware of logistical issues. He says, however, the biggest Brexit/Border question is psychological.
“I said to a senior Minister the other night ‘you need to get this idea of queues and Border check points out of your mind, it’s more subtle than that’,” Roddy says.
“In 1998 people voted on the Good Friday agreement, and while the text is very important to me it’s the meaning of it – it was about breaking down divides.
“Anything that creates divides cannot be allowed to happen. The people voted for those divides to be removed – they cannot be allowed to come back. Everybody feels very strongly about that. I could not countenance it.
“I’m passionate about this city, I love the people. It’s a difficult city that has had challenges. But if there was one thing that would make me think ‘I’ve had enough’ it would be the idea of a border like I remember.
“If I thought for one minute that my kids or grandkids were going to go through even a version of it – even a camera . . . it’s going to harm my identity and what people voted for in 1998: no divides, all equal. It means so much to so many here.”
In the Brexit referendum the Foyle constituency containing the Brandywell voted 78.3 per cent to Remain. There is a European aspect to the northwest Irish identity.
In the 20 years since the Good Friday agreement strategies have developed. The geography, physical and political, of Derry has meant historically it has been isolated and sometimes isolationist.
Now, Roddy says, “this city works as a city-region, Derry and Donegal councils work in tandem to redress the imbalance that the northwest has had. People won’t allow that to be split up.
“Letterkenny has been so badly cut off from Dublin, and Derry from everywhere else, certainly Belfast, so the two councils are working hand in glove. The two governments understand that. But the 220 who voted against Theresa May’s deal don’t.”
While it is legitimate for Roddy to talk of psychology, those Brexiteer MPs in Westminster may deliver a physical barrier as a consequence of their anti-EU mindset.
Barry McNamee and his brother Shane are two of six or seven Derry players who live in Donegal and commute five days a week. Even if a new border is not “like I remember”, as Roddy says, it will surely have physical implications.
Roddy, a former fireman in a city often in flames, can take you back to the early 1970s when the turmoil was so great that the Irish League told Derry City to leave the Brandywell for Coleraine and then to get out altogether. Derry City were gone – and gone for 13 years until they crossed the Border into the League of Ireland.
“This is a football town, soccer brought the masses,” Roddy says. “Some in GAA mightn’t like it but soccer is the largest participatory sport on the island of Ireland. This city is a bedrock for soccer, so to be devoid of that senior team . . . even thinking about it was depressing. If Derry City were no longer there it would be awful.
“The club is more than just a club, it’s an identity. It’s hard to calculate what that identity means to people, but it’s in your veins. You don’t lose that; yet it was lost.”
The feeling for the club and sense of loss in 1972 meant that when describing its acceptance into the League of Ireland in 1985, Roddy uses the word “transformational”.
“Every weekend we’d riots in this street and, I kid you not, it just stopped the weekend Derry City went back into senior soccer.
“That was over. Everyone was focused on the game on Sunday, not just home games but away. People travelled in their thousands. It’s not that the Troubles were no longer there, but people’s minds were concentrating on the football. There was a pride, an escape.”
Derry City became known for their large travelling support but Border crossings were often tense. Devine recalls buses being “stoned” in some areas, while Roddy says bluntly “well, it wasn’t easy”.
‘Where are you going’
“You could come up to a checkpoint and soldiers of the same age as you were asking how the game went, or they could have asked ‘where are you going?’
“You’d say ‘Derry’.”
“Where are you going?”
“Sorry, where’s Derry? Where are you going?’
“Right, pull your car over.”
“You’d maybe be held for an hour. Those were the days we were in. They are a living memory, they did happen.”
It is why the idea of a militarised border reappearing three miles from the Brandywell sends shudders through Derry City. It is a future Devine does not want his players to see from the walls on Sunday.
“I don’t really care about Brexit,” he says, “and I try my best to take politics out of football. I’m trying to bring a group of men together to represent the city.
“Half of them are from it, half of them aren’t, and the quicker we can get them all tight and together . . . as far as I’m concerned politics can go and drop the shoulder. I just want quality people, quality footballers, and to put on an exhibition out there at weekends.”