By Simon Evans
LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland (Reuters) – As politicians from Britain and the European Union wrangled over the fate of the Irish border and post-Brexit customs arrangements, the fans of a League of Ireland football club are unlikely to have been uppermost in their thoughts.
With a deal struck in Brussels, the focus turns back to whether lawmakers in London will approve it. For the supporters and staff of Derry City FC, hundreds of miles away from the corridors of power, the outcome is crucial.
Derry City are in a tricky situation. While based in Northern Ireland, the “Troubles” in the 1970s led to them switching to play in the Republic’s football league, their players and fans crossing the border every other week.
“We just don’t know how this is going to end up. As a club we are concerned,” club director and former player Tony O’Doherty told Reuters, at his community centre office on the Creggan estate, a strongly pro-Ireland nationalist area.
“Until we see the deal, we are just not sure”.
The club’s worries echo those of thousands of borderland residents and businesses, whose lives straddle the now-invisible frontier, about how day to day life will carry on when one country is inside the EU and one will be outside.
The conundrum for politicians was how to prevent the frontier becoming a backdoor into the EU’s single market without erecting checkpoints that could undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of conflict in the province.
The location of the club’s Brandywell stadium explains much of its history. The ground is nestled in the Bogside district, just a few minutes walk from the emblematic Irish Republican mural that declares “You are now entering Free Derry”.
The Bogside was the scene of the “Bloody Sunday” shootings in 1972 when soldiers from the British Parachute Regiment opened fire during an unauthorised civil rights march in one of the most notorious incidents of the conflict. Thirteen people were killed and 14 wounded, one of whom died later.
Even before then, clubs from the Northern Irish league had refused to play at the Brandywell after an incident when the Ballymena team bus had been burned.
That in itself was a relatively minor incident at a time when the barricades were in place in the nationalist area of the city, where people supported a united Ireland, and clashes with the police and the British army were a regular occurrence.
Forced to play 30 miles away for a season, but still in Northern Ireland, the club’s participation in the league was deemed no longer viable and they reluctantly resigned from the (Northern) Irish League in October, 1972.
For 13 years, Derry City were in the wilderness, playing in an amateur Saturday morning league, with little but the memories of their 1965 championship winning season to ease the bitterness and a few references to the club on the record sleeves of local punk band The Undertones, to keep them in the public’s mind.
“Growing up at that time with no club to watch, Derry City was something almost mythical,” says former striker Liam Coyle, whose father Fay captained the title-winning team and who started his footballing life kicking a ball on the streets adjacent to the Brandywell.
But the determination of a group of four former players, including O’Doherty, who worked to get the club into the Republic’s League of Ireland in 1985, ensured that the club re-emerged and that Liam Coyle would have a chance to emulate his father’s achievements.
Having persuaded the football authorities on both sides of the border to accept the highly unusual switch of leagues, Derry made a huge impact south of the border.
After two seasons of bringing huge travelling support to tiny clubs in the second tier, “The Candystripes” won promotion and then in 1989 won an unprecedented league and cups treble – with Coyle central to their success.
The club and its supporters have been crossing the border for games ever since and the peace process has even meant that another club, Institute FC, from the majority pro-British unionist Drumahoe district of the city, have ground-shared at the Brandywell after their own ground was ruined by floods.
But Brexit has disturbed the sense of ease at the club.
The team’s manager Declan Devine is sure that, whatever the outcome, the club will find a way to continue through it.
“Nobody knows what it entails for us. But this is nothing new for us. When the Troubles were at their worst … we had buses stoned and windows put through when we were coming home,” he said.
O’Doherty, whose status in his community is such that there is a mural of him on the Creggan estate, says the club can do nothing but wait for the politics to play out.
“This whole Brexit thing has meant that the word ‘never’, whether in politics, business or sport, can’t be used anymore.
“It might have nothing to do with (us) at all but it is such a mess that no one knows.”
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Alison Williams)