Party Poopers

An article I wrote for Hoops Scene in August 2014:

April 2, 1989 was supposed to be coronation day for the most successful manager ever in the domestic game. Derry City needed just one point to be sure of winning their first Premier Division title when the Noel King led Shamrock Rovers took on Jim McLaughlin’s hometown club that Sunday afternoon. Once good friends, the pair had fallen out.

6231 NOEL KING & JIM McLAUGHLIN (DERRY MANAGER) 2 APR '89 (1-0)

“I don’t want to know about the Cup being brought here, it seems like tempting fate”, said the ultra-wary McLaughlin, even in the knowledge that the only way it could be returned temporarily to official keeping was if Derry lost to his former Milltown charges and Dundalk defeated St. Patrick’s Athletic at Richmond Park.

This Derry team, which contained no less than five of the players who had assisted Shamrock Rovers to the historic Four in a Row, were on a 13 game winning streak. Meanwhile an understrength Rovers side, with Peter Mumby and Noel King on the injury list and top goalscorer Roddy Collins ruled out by a two match suspension, were searching for their first away win of the season.

Everyone, King included, expected Derry to be presented with the trophy at the end of the game. A full house at the Brandywell allowed their emotions to reach fever-pitch after years of being starved of senior football. Derry won the Irish League in 1965 and McLaughlin, ever mindful of history, wanted to win a league championship in two different countries. Rapid Vienna did it in Germany during Nazi rule.

In the 54th minute, ‘Dax’ Kealy scored the only goal of the game and his only goal in the Hoops. Kealy was perfectly positioned to run in and head the ball past the helpless Tim Dalton after Wayne Cooney’s shot from a Ricky McEvoy free kick had caught a deflection. His sensational winner combined with Dundalk’s 1-0 victory in Inchicore silenced the 13,000 ‘Red Army’ supporters and turned the Derry party into a wake.

Noel King was naturally delighted but he still had a soft spot for the northerners after guiding them to promotion from the First Division two years earlier. “I would be sad if this costs Derry the title. I don’t think it will – and certainly the team and the people of Derry deserve it”, added the Rovers player-boss.

Indeed, the shock defeat would only postpone the inevitable. Derry beat Cobh Ramblers in their last home game of the season thanks to a brace of goals from Paul Doolin. The Candystripes captured a unique treble of League, FAI Cup and League Cup and Rovers finished the season in seventh place.

Tuesday April 15, 1997 was another potentially decisive encounter and midfielder Paul Hegarty, a survivor of the ’89 side, had every reason to fear that lightning might strike twice at the Brandywell.

Finn Harps did their North-West rivals a favour by defeating Shelbourne 3-2 in Ballybofey which gave Derry an opportunity to triumph with three games to spare. The buzz from the 5,000 crowd, most of whom were tuned into Highland Radio, was palpable but, perversely it was Rovers who were inspired, not the home side.

They took the lead after 25 minutes when Derek Tracey chested the ball down on the left edge of the box before unleashing an unstoppable right-foot volley into the top corner for a stunning goal.

12 minutes from time Gary Beckett’s effort deflected off Pat Fenlon and slewed in slow motion past a wrong footed Robbie Horgan to spark off wild celebrations. A draw wasn’t good enough though and Derry hit Rovers with all they could muster in a nerve-jangling finale. Peter Hutton nearly won it at the death but yet again the champagne had to be kept on ice.

Felix Healy’s men went on to clinch the title with a 2-0 win over reigning champions St. Pat’s the following Saturday on Foyleside. Rovers, on the other hand, did not ensure their safety from relegation until a scoreless draw at home to UCD the previous night.

9544 MARC KENNY & PETER HUTTON (DERRY) 15 APR '97 (1-1)

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