Comment: Derry City is more than just a football club

A view of Derry City scarves ahead of a recent game at Brandywell. Photograph by Lorcan Doherty (Inpho),
A view of Derry City scarves ahead of a recent game at Brandywell. Photograph by Lorcan Doherty (Inpho),

IT’S FANTASTIC to see Derry City boss Declan Devine is delivering on his pre-season promise to reconnect and re-engage with the Derry public.

Obviously results and performances have helped along the way with the Candy Stripes sitting pretty in fourth after 14 matches.

However, the work off the pitch and the implementation of the club’s community outreach strategy has also played a major part in galvanising support for the Candy Stripes and strengthening the bond between the players and supporters. It’s not a new concept but one the local management team are keen to embrace.

Amongst the many community based activities the club has got involved in this season was a charity car wash for ‘Destined’ a charitable organisation that seeks to address the needs of people with learning disabilities, and the same group welcomed the teams out onto the pitch on Friday night, performing a guard of honour.

The Candy Stripes have also shown their support for the ‘Darkness into Light’ walk for those who have been bereaved by suicide while the club has also done its fair share for local schools with Devine and his players recently visiting St Joseph’s Boys School as part of the school’s ‘Health Week’ programme.

They’ve also done fantastic work with local Down’s Syndrome football team, Oxford Bulls and midfielder, Ciaron Harkin and defender, Conor McDermott recently took part in a wheelchair basketball practice match with the North West Wolves Wheelchair Basketball team.

Derry City supporter Zoe Wilson prior to the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match between Derry City and Cork City at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium

Derry City supporter Zoe Wilson prior to the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match between Derry City and Cork City at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium

The club is in a position to become much more than just a football team and Devine is determined to be more relevant and connected to people within the city.

“When the current management team came in last year they made no secret of the fact they felt the club needed to reconnect on a basic level with the local community,” said club PRO, Lawrence Moore. “Taking the entire squad around the walls on the eve of the new season was probably the most widely-publicised engagement. However, there have been many more.

“The players have formed links, for example, with the Oxford Bulls and of course we had the ‘Destined’ group forming a guard of honour on Friday night. The players all take their turns at going into a wide array of local schools and it’s fair to say that the club has been in on average one school each week since the season started.

“Declan wants the players to know what it means to represent Derry City and obviously bringing Liam Coyle in recently to talk to the squad about representing the club and the city generally was another well received initiative.

“Last week the club showed support for the ‘Darkness into Light’ Derry group and there are other proposals under consideration for over the summer.”

Devine’s latest gesture to open his team’s training sessions to the public, and in particular for those who can’t afford to come to watch their hometown club on match days,also hit the right notes with the club’s supporters.

“The idea of inviting supporters to call into training sessions was borne out of the fact that there were so many games in a short space of time,” explained Mr Moore. “The management team recognises that it can be difficult financially for all supporters to come to all games so there are little things like this that help maintain that relationship between players and supporters. The club is currently discussing other similar suggestions although obviously these need to go through the proper channels.”

It’s a throwback to the days when ex-Derry City boss, Noel King opened up his training sessions to the public in various locations around the town back in 1985-86. Devine was in attendance when the likes of Dennis Tueart, Stuart Gauld, Kevin Mahon and Tony O’Doherty formed part of the Candy Stripes’ team which held a training session in Bishop’s Field in Creggan and it remains a prominent image in the mind of the current City boss. It obviously left a lasting impression on the Creggan man and so he’s keen to reach out to the Derry supporters.

While a format and schedule has yet to be decided with the proposal to be approved by Derry City and Strabane District Council, Devine is determined to make it happen whether those open training sessions take place at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium or elsewhere. The club will await confirmation from the Council in the coming weeks before announcing any further details. It’s an idea Devine believes will be well received amongst City fans and for those who can’t afford to take in every home game.

“The connection between players and supporters is phenomenal and the respect the players have for the support is incredible,” said Devine. “Our players are out in the community working with the Oxford Bulls and with the Ryan McBride Foundation. There are people out volunteering for charities across the town. They’re getting stopped in the town and being asked for autographs again. This is a wonderful time but nobody is getting carried away. How you keep people coming back is by winning matches and giving that continued effort.”

There has been significant increases in home gates since the start of the season which is testament to the work being done throughout the club by not just the management and players, the Chairman, Philip O’Doherty and the Board, but all those volunteers who give their time and support for the good of the club.

The caveat of those bumper attendances of course, is the team’s remarkable success on the pitch. Considering Devine needed a completely new team, 15 players in total, it has to be said he has his side punching far above their weight. And with continued backing from the fans who knows how far it can take the club?

If only the FAI could help the club build on the club’s fantastic community outreach strategy with a financial incentive. Wouldn’t it be great to get a helping hand from the governing body who claim it has the interest of the national league at heart? I recall the association announced in 2017 a joint initiative with the Welsh FA named ‘More than a Club’ which was run at both Bohemians and Cork City which “aims to cooperate with local professional football clubs in Ireland and Wales and assist them in the development of stand-alone social enterprises which will promote important support to address underserved social needs within disadvantaged communities.”

The funds provided to the FAI for this initiative by the EU was €572,183. The total project budget from the FAI was €715,229. However, the FAI announced recently that funding for this valuable project has been withdrawn as Wales are now leaving the European Union.

The FAI must do more to help Airtricity League clubs develop their community remit. A greater community engagement focus can serve to attract new club stakeholders with more people, and businesses becoming advocates of the club. The League of Ireland clubs can then become more than just football teams and be more relevant to more people within their communities which is what the Brandywell club is so admirably striving towards.