THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

The team from Northern Ireland that play in the Republic are more used to international competition than most and well worth a famous UEFA Cup victory over opponents who take too much for granted. By Robbie Meredith

It may have been a common experience for Everton and Sheffield Wednesday fans, but for the first and perhaps only time in my life I’d really like to know what Niclas Alexandersson is thinking. The captain of IFK Gothenburg is wandering across the pitch at Derry City’s Brandywell ground, carrying a set of training bibs for his team’s pre-match warm-up, and is looking disconsolately up into the rickety main stand. Maybe he’s wondering what has happened to the Franz’n’Sepp show he witnessed first-hand in Dortmund, Berlin, Cologne and Munich as the right-back in Sweden’s underwhelming World Cup team.

Surroundings here are very different. The “grandstand” in which I sit would hold barely 300 people at a squeeze, all huddled together on low wooden benches, while the “press box” is just a set of five desks, painted black, set among the spectators. Opposite me a newer, low-slung stand runs the length of the touchline on the side nearer the River Foyle, which splits the city of Derry in two. Due to UEFA seating regulations, these are the only areas allowed to be used tonight, keeping the crowd down to around 2,500. To get to the playing surface from the changing rooms, Alexandersson and his team-mates have had to cross a training pitch and a sandy greyhound track. As I came in earlier I walked past several of them, resplendent in shiny training gear and flip-flops, looking bewildered by their surroundings.

Yet they’re here on serious business. Two weeks ago, Derry City travelled to the Gamla Ullevi stadium and beat a team that have twice won the UEFA Cup and produced a host of Swedish internationals 1-0, with a late goal from defender Sean Hargan. Even allowing for Gothenburg’s reduced status in recent years, Derry’s first away victory in Europe was one of the most notable results in Irish football history and one of the brightest chapters in the club’s remarkable, and sometimes turbulent, past. Forced to leave the Northern Irish league in the 1970s due to increasing unrest, they resurfaced in the Republic of Ireland’s championship in 1985. Like Berwick Rangers, Cardiff and Swansea City, Derry play in the league of another country, although it’s probably fair to say that many in the city, which is divided politically as well as geographically by the Foyle, don’t view the Republic as a foreign land.

With a passion fired by returning from the dead, City won the double four years after re-emerging, but, despite another title in 1997 and a cup win in 2002, they’ve fought relegation on a regular basis of late. Yet last year new manager Stephen Kenny took them to second in the Eircom League, the title only lost on the final day through defeat to champions Cork City. Hence tonight.

As the teams warm up to the sound of the Undertones, a large man in a tight Derry shirt sits down behind me. “Will you look at that?” he says. “There’s something to write about. That’s fuckin’ embarrassing.” The groundstaff are the cause of his anger. In a last-minute attempt to water the pitch they’re hauling a fire hose across it, spraying water randomly and threatening to trip up several players. In addition, the hose has sprung a leak. “They must have complained about the pitch. We should have left it alone,” he sighs, keen that Derry present themselves as nothing less than professional.

It turns out that he was one of the Derry supporters who had made it to Sweden for the first match. He wasn’t very impressed with the attitude of the Gothenburg players. “You should have seen their warm-up,” he says, waving his arms about half-heartedly, “they look a lot more tuned in tonight.” In fact, stories appeared in the press claiming that Alexandersson had announced that he was looking forward to a short holiday in Ireland for the second leg. Perhaps this is why he spends the rest of the evening playing like a man who’d rather be on a sun lounger.

Whenever I’ve seen Irish clubs play  European opposition, the contrast in physique and fitness between part-time local sides and their full-time opponents has been explicit. Tonight, however, I notice no such difference. It turns out that most of the Derry players are full-timers, a situation increasingly common in the Eircom league, which has brought some economic pain but many footballing benefits.

Like any small club maintaining a full-time squad on average gates of fewer than 3,000, Derry draw funding from an eclectic range of sources. Each of the management team and the squad are sponsored by a range of businesses and supporters’ clubs named in the programme, and fans I chat to confirm that club life is a relentless round of lotto draws, fund-raisers and tapping up potential sponsors. Many Eircom League clubs are in financial trouble – Dublin City folded a few weeks ago – but full-time summer football has ensured a rise in quality. Drogheda, Cork and Shelbourne have all made European progress in recent years and a number of the Derry players are local boys who have returned home to play rather than plough on in the reserves at English sides.

When the game begins it becomes clear that Derry’s first-leg win was no fluke. They start confidently, knocking the ball around rather than hoofing it up the pitch to Gary Beckett, their lone striker. Although they’re playing a nominal 4-5-1, the two contrasting wide players, the wiry Kevin McHugh and Stephen O’Flynn, with the build of a boxer and tattoos to match, spend most of their time attacking. Meanwhile, their rugged defenders deal fairly easily with the slippery Gothenburg forwards. The visitors only threaten from set pieces, aided by the fact that Derry keeper David Forde seems to have a pathological attachment to his goalline.

Gothenburg are busy, but not as good as I expected, and Derry protect their aggregate lead fairly comfortably. The massed Derry fans on the far side are creating a hell of a noise, spurred on by a local “Manolo” thumping out the rhythm to their chants on a bass drum. The crowd around me seem excessively polite, content to applaud and offer occasional shouts of “Good stuff” and “Come on”, save for one middle-aged woman who shouts “Oh Jesus!” every time Gothenburg enter the Derry half. Perhaps this restraint is due to the fact that a number of “dignitaries”, including Nobel Prize winner John Hume, Sinn Féin deputy leader Martin McGuinness, and, er, Manchester City coach Derek Fazackerley – presumably scouting – are perched on the benches too.

Just on the half-hour, their moderation evaporates as the home team win a penalty. The Icelandic referee’s decision is an easy one, as striker George Mourad, back defending a Derry corner, makes a typical forward’s challenge by flinging his hand needlessly at the ball – exactly the sort of offence Graham Poll missed in the Australia versus Croatia game in Germany. O’Flynn buries the kick low to the keeper’s left and it’s hard to believe that a couple of thousand people can create so much noise. Gothenburg promptly disintegrate: simple passes are misplaced, players let the ball roll under their feet and McHugh should make it two, but misses from a volley in front of goal. Gothenburg are lucky to go in still needing only two goals to rescue the tie.

They don’t improve in the second half. Arne Erlandsen, their Norwegian manger, stands aloof, Sven-like, as his team disintegrate, but finally rouses himself to make a substitution on the hour, although he replaces Stefan Selakovic, who had looked their most dangerous player. Some of the Gothenburg players are exceptionally poor, none more so than Pontus Wernbloom, a central midfielder who resembles the big lad at school who only got picked to make a nuisance of himself. The nippy young Derry midfielders just pass the ball round him all night, but they miss chances to kill the tie, Ruairdhi Higgins getting in O’Flynn’s way just as the wide man is about to convert.

With a quarter of an hour to go, Gothenburg get a chance to rescue themselves as Forde makes a first, ill-judged, charge off his line to bring down Marcus Berg. From where I’m sitting it looks a clear penalty and the referee concurs, but his linesman, who had a better view, convinces his colleague to reverse the decision. Berg’s booked for a dive, causing Alexandersson to move faster than he has all game to confront the official.

Despite late pressure, causing the woman beside me to expand her repertoire to “Oh Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus”, Gothenburg don’t really threaten again and the final whistle brings a fully deserved victory. Derry’s players do a Klinsmannesque dive in front of their drum-addled support. Half the visitors stalk off to get changed, while the rest make a desultory attempt to applaud the 50 or so who have travelled from Gothenburg to support their disunited team.

In terms of the resources and history of both clubs, Derry’s win counts as a giant-killing, but it didn’t look that way on the pitch. This was no gritty, ugly, “fight like hell” victory, but a skilful, controlled performance. The next day Derry draw Gretna in the second qualifying round, a competitive tie that gives them an even chance of progress. It should be to Gothenburg’s shame that the rising Scottish club will probably provide Derry with a stiffer test than the Swedes were able to manage.

From WSC 235 September 2006. What was happening this month

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