Politics & Football

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Derry City 3 v 1 Bray Wanderers (09.10.2015)

Dutch legend Ruud Gullit once famously quoted that politics and football don’t mix. That was just ahead of an ill fated spell as manager of Russian side Terek Grozny, where ironically politics completely dictated the on and off field happenings in the troubled region of Chechnya. Whilst the intention of his quote was spot on, invariably our beautiful game is rife with politics.

At a local level you could fill a manifesto with examples of political indifference in football that has literally left communities divided. The recent fad of billionaire owners tampering with club traditions has caused much turmoil for loyal supporters. Vincent Tan of Cardiff City springs to mind, where after 116 years of proud history and club tradition, the club’s historic colours were changed from blue to red and the club badge from a bluebird to a red dragon. All to appeal to a global market that Cardiff City fans quite frankly couldn’t give a shit about. If you cast your mind back to 2004, who could forget the Wimbledon story? The club ripped from its local community, renamed, and then plonked like an MLS franchise to MIlton Keynes some 63 miles from its home.

On a national and international level, football is often hit with politics on a far deeper and damaging scale. Corruption, religion, dictatorial regimes, and more recently terrorism all hold influence over the game we love. World football’s governing body FIFA has been exposed countless times for the corruption of its ExCo members, and Sepp Blatter’s recent suspension suggests the NGO is rotten to the core. The pretence of taking the beautiful game to all corners of the globe, stained by dodgy back handers and rigged voting systems which inadvertently call into question the very allocation of World Cup’s to destinations like Qatar and Russia.

There are countless clubs across Europe that have been influenced and impacted by international politics. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the reclamation of Crimea, literally saw FC Sevastopol and FC Tavriya Simferopol dissolve their status from the Ukrainian top flight overnight and placed into the Russian 3rd Division.  No doubt some ‘new’ and interesting away days there for the fans to contemplate. However both clubs were initially ‘unrecognised’ by UEFA, and following a complaint from the Ukrainian Football Federation, they have now been banned from participating in Russian professional competition, and await the formation of a local Crimean league.

Derry_City_FC_logoMuch closer to home though there is one football club in particular that has felt the impact of national politics more than most – Derry City in Northern Ireland. A football club that was exiled for 13 years to the amateur footballing wilderness by its own FA, before years of political wrangling gained the club a reprieve and supportive votes from the IFA and UEFA enabling them to play in another country’s league – the Republic of Ireland’s Premier division – now known as the SSE Airtricity League.

Today, Derry City are the only ‘top flight’ club in Europe playing in another country’s league on the grounds of political indifference. Founded in 1928, Derry were granted entry into the Irish Football League a year later, playing their home games at the Brandywell Stadium. During the early part of the club’s history there had been no significant sectarian difficulties at matches, and the club won the Irish Cup three times in 1949, 1954 and 1964. The latter cup win led to former European greats Steaua Bucharest turning out at the Brandywell in the 1964/65 Cup Winners Cup. A 5-0 aggregate defeat in the first round brought a premature end to the club’s maiden European excursion. A first Irish League title would follow later that same season and the club took a remarkable step into the promised land of the European Cup.  An 8-6 aggregate win over FK Lyn of Norway saw Derry City become the first Irish club to win a European Cup tie over two legs. The reward, a plum draw against Belgian champions Anderlecht. Despite progressing through the preliminary round of the European Cup a few weeks previous, Derry City were denied the opportunity to host the tie against Anderlecht after the IFA condemned the Brandywell as ‘below standards’. The club later refused to meet the IFA’s request for the tie to be played at Belfast’s Windsor Park. Playing in a mainly nationalist, catholic city, Derry City suspected sectarian motives behind the IFA’s decision and their request to switch the match to Belfast. Unfortunately for Derry City and its supporters the biggest game in the club’s history was forfeited.

Understandably relations between Derry City and the IFA deteriorated from this point onwards, but the club continued to compete in the Northern Irish league up until 1971. During the late 1960’s though growing political unrest between the Unionist government and the Catholic population of Northern Ireland led to rising community tensions across the country. Derry became the focal point for the Civil Rights Campaign that began in 1969 as Catholics in the city were increasingly discriminated against, both politically and economically under Unionist Government rule. Widespread institutional gerrymandering was commonplace, but seemingly uncontrollable. The city became a regular flashpoint for political disputes, and growing community tensions and civil disorder in the city was marked by the ‘Battle of Bogside’, where catholic rioters fought police amidst violent scenes. Its this event that is widely regarded as having started a notorious period in Irish history known as the ‘Troubles’.

The Brandywell Stadium, which is located in the Bogside area of Derry, was at the frontline of the civil rights movement. Inevitably, as the outbreaks of violence and the death toll began to rise – football matches featuring the predominantly Protestant teams in the Irish League became inflammatory. Unionist teams became reluctant to travel to the Republican stronghold and play their games at the Brandywell, and in 1971 The Royal Ulster Constabulary declared the Bogside area unsafe for fixtures. With no other suitable local ground available, Derry City had no option but to travel to the majority unionist town of Coleraine (approx 30 miles away) to play its home games at the Showgrounds – the home of their rivals. This arrangement started in September 1971 and lasted until October 1972. Ultimately, dwindling crowds and shrivelling finances forced the club to request permission to return to the Brandywell.

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A review by the security forces concluded that the Brandywell was no longer any more dangerous than any other league ground in the country and after a lifting of the security ban, Derry’s proposal fell by one vote at the hands of its fellow Irish League teams, including a vote against by Coleraine – ironically the club they had been ground sharing with.

Continuing without a ground was unsustainable for Derry and on 13th October 1972 the club withdrew from the league amidst a perception that it was effectively forced out on the grounds of victimisation and marginalisation. Derry City dropped down into local Saturday football where they remained for a 13 year spell – a period known locally as the ‘wilderness years’. Time and again the club sought readmission to the Irish League, each time nominating the Brandywell as its chosen home ground, only to be denied by the IFA. Suspecting refusal was driven by sectarianism and believing it would never again gain readmission to the Irish League, Derry turned its attentions elsewhere. In 1985 Derry applied to join the reorganised League of Ireland (in the Republic of Ireland) with the Brandywell as its home. The move required special dispensation from the IFA and FIFA, but eventually supportive votes sanctioning the move enabled Derry to be admitted to the League of Ireland’s new First Division, joining initially as semi-professionals. Derry’s first match in the new system was on 8th September 1985, where a 3–1 League of Ireland Cup win over Home Farm of Dublin was played out in front of a packed out Brandywell. The rest as they say is history.

Fast forward 30 years and I was intrigued to visit the city and the football club that had faced such a troubled past. The opportunity to attend a game at a club playing in another country’s league was also too unique to turn down!

Today, Derry is a popular tourist destination, a lively and friendly city, but one that still has a certain edge about it. Only a short stroll from the main city centre and it’s ancient perimeter walls and you’ll enter Bogside – the area that marks some of the most historic and troubled events in recent Irish history. A memorial to Bloody Sunday casts a sad but poignant reminder to those that lost innocent loved ones back in 1972. The ‘Free Derry’ wall, now an iconic landmark commemorates Free Derry as a self-declared autonomous nationalist area of the city. Murals on residential buildings, graffiti profiling the IRA, and Tricolour flags of the Republic of Ireland flying proudly from many a home provide a distinct intimation as to how this community views itself. Just walking through the area and you can’t help but sense the history here, but also the clear divide that still exists today. Peaceful maybe, but a history that’s definitely not forgotten, and an aspiration that remains.

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The Brandywell is a 7,700 capacity municipal sports arena situated in the heart of a tightly packed residential area – only a 5 minute walk from the Free Derry wall. A dog racing track surrounds the pitch, and decaying sections of concrete terracing and high red brick walls with barb wire provide a gritty backdrop. Externally it looks altogether prison like, but once on the inside the place is full of character, and a relic to former glory days. Stood there that evening I couldn’t help but imagine what the scenes would have been like back in 1964 when Steaua Bucharest were in town for the European Cup Winners Cup.

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£10 buys you a place on the terracing, but to be honest, once inside you can walk around the whole ground and plot up anywhere you like. The aptly named ‘Brandywell Pride’ supporters group congregate in the main seated stand and sing and chant for 90 minutes to the backdrop of a beating drum. If a seat in the main stand is all too modern an experience for you, then there’s plenty of other old school options served up for your viewing pleasure! How about the ‘cowshed’ as we nicknamed it – a small corrugated iron shelter positioned on the outside bend of the dog racing track! Slightly past its heyday, the ‘cowshed’ provides a welcome spot of shelter on those exposed Friday nights. Perfect for those that prefer to stand, and perfect for those that can’t be arsed to walk round to the main stand to get cover from the elements! A gallery of framed photos at the back of the shelter was a nice touch too, and if you needed a distraction from a stinker of a game then you could turn your back on the action and take a trip down memory lane! Adjacent to the cow-shed was a section of crumbling open air terracing. Here a splattering of the older generation of fans were flanked by the Derry City Under 11’s Ultra’s section who took up residence on some temporary seating next door to the terracing!

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League of Ireland games are predominantly played on Friday night’s – so what better way to kick start a football weekend in Ireland?! Even during international weeks the domestic league rumbles on. The night before had seen Northern Ireland secure their place at Euro 2016 – not that Derry City fans would have been too bothered about that! The result that had grabbed the locals attention was the Republic of Ireland’s 1-0 win over World Champions Germany!

The visitors tonight were Bray Wanderers, and although this was an end of season mid table non entity on paper, it turned out to be a highly entertaining game full of open attacking football. There were chances galore, and dubious Bray defending certainly played its part! Derry raced into a 2-0 lead inside 10 minutes, and the Candystripes No.10 Patrick McEleney caught the eye with a ‘No.10-esque’ performance full of creativity and flair. A series of missed chances that should have at least doubled Derry’s lead somehow kept the scoreline respectable for Bray, and when they pulled a goal back in the 54th minute you couldn’t help but think it was going to be “one of those nights” for the Derry fans. Thankfully for the Brandywell Pride their No.10 produced a moment of class and curled in a 25 yarder into the top corner (just like any decent No 10 should!), sealing a 3-1 win in the process.

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The Peace Bridge, Derry…


Article Acknowlegdement:

– Derry Journal

– Dundalk FC Magazine (Colm Murphy)

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