By Simon Evans
LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland (Reuters) – At a time when so much focus on both sides of the Irish border is on the European Union and its future relationship with the United Kingdom, Declan Devine has another kind of Europe on his mind.
The manager of League of Ireland club Derry City knows that positive results in the last three games of the season could earn the club a spot in the Europa League and potential fixtures against some of the continent’s traditional giants.
That would complete a swift turnaround in fortunes for a club that finished last season one place above the relegation zone in the 10-team league, which plays during the summer months.
The ‘Candystripes’ are in an unusual position.
While based in Northern Ireland, violence in the Bogside area where Derry’s Brandywell ground is located in the 1970s during the conflict referred to as the “Troubles” led to them switching to play in the Republic’s football league in 1985.
Sitting in his office, at a gym on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Londonderry, former player and youth coach Devine says that when he returned to the club in November, he inherited a sorry situation.
“For me, last year there were teams walking into Brandywell, taking the three points, and walking back out again. There was no fight or heartbeat about the club,” he said.
“It was the same with the fans, everyone was down. Attendances were down… there was no rapport between fans and players,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“We had to re-establish an identity for the club.”
Such a state of affairs rankled with Derry-born Devine, who was a young fan at the club’s first game after they joined the League of Ireland following 13 years in the wilderness — they had quit league football in the north in 1972.
“It wasn’t a nice place. The security forces, the Brits (army) and the cops were everywhere, people were being hounded out of the city. It wasn’t the best place in the world but it was home, it was where we were,” he said.
‘SMALLCOG IN THEMACHINE’
The re-formation of the football club changed the mood — at least on a Friday night when the floodlights lit up the Bogside.
“There was rioting, there were people being killed, it wasn’t a nice place but when you went to Brandywell and people couldn’t get in the door, they were squashed in, it was like heaven, it was incredible.
“People all singing and in the scarves… the enjoyment, the roar and the smell of the football in those first few years it was a release for everyone.
“If you were growing up then, Derry City was a big part of your life. In 1985 when Derry City came along, it changed your life, I was just hooked and have been ever since,” he said.
Devine led a total clearout of the playing staff, bringing in 24 new players, a mixture of some with local roots, Scottish and Irish and foreign players.
Yet he made sure that all were given a crash course in the history of the city and the club.
“The week before the season, we took them on a tour of the city – we went around the murals, we went around the walls, it was pissing with rain, we were soaked to the skin but we all did the tour together,” he said.
“We heard about the tough times, about the (1689) siege of Derry, about Bloody Sunday, about hunger strikers and all the rest. It gave us that wee bit of feeling that we are only a small cog in the machine here and one day we will be gone, but that the history of Derry City is very important to the people of Derry,” he said.
“The local-based players have been brilliant but the ones from outside have been every bit as good as well,” he said.
The result has been a team that has no shortage of spirit as they have pushed themselves to fourth place with three games to go — unlike most of Europe, the season began in late February and runs until late October.
Yet while so much of Derry City’s history is connected with the Bogside and the “Troubles”, Devine says he operates a strictly non-sectarian approach.
“One thing we don’t talk about here is our own personal backgrounds, no-one cares about religion, or what our past has been.
“But if you are here representing this city, you must work extremely hard, you must be proud of where you are playing your football, you are also representing 118,000 people.
“We are in a privileged position to represent this city on a Friday night and we are fighting for every single person in our community.”
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis)