‘STAY alert’. Those words may well have been in Stephen Kenny’s pre-match team talk the night Derry City made Uefa Cup history back in 2006.
July, August and September of that year were arguably the greatest in the Candystripes’ history, with games against Gothenburg, Gretna and Paris St Germain making Derry a household name across Europe – it was the Brandywell club’s 15 minutes of fame on a roadtrip that was celebrated as ‘The European Dance’.
The journey began with two magical nights against IFK Gothenburg, as the small team from Ireland beat the former Champions League regulars both away and home, the magnitude of which did not escape anyone at the time. Except Gretna maybe. Gretna boss Rowan Alexander infamously incensed Derry ahead of the tie by comparing them to a Scottish First Division opponent, despite being well aware of both Gothenburg results.
What followed was a serving humble football pie as moneybags Gretna, on an express train to the SPL, were left battered and bruised on a magical night at Motherwell’s Fir Park. More than 3,000 City fans watched their team hit five away goals to claim an Irish record in European football that has yet to be beaten. Derry City won 5-1 and 7-3 on aggregate.
Stephen O’Flynn will never forget it.
“I remember waiting upstairs in the Brandywell waiting for the draw and a load of people were asking ‘Who’s Gretna?’ he explained.
“Gothenburg were obviously a great name so when we got Gretna we didn’t know too much about them. We were maybe hoping to get a bigger team but there was excitement as well, especially when we discovered we would be playing in Fir Park.
“We went over there maybe thinking we would be happy with a 0-0 draw or if we could score an away goal. There were no big thrills. They were a wee bit unknown and that’s just the way it was. We had won away in Gothenburg so we were confident that we could give a Scottish team a game.”
After Gretna went 1-0 up, Darren Kelly equalised with a header to send both teams in level at the break. Then chaos ensued. Kevin Deery struck two sensational goals before Ciaran Martyn added a double himself as Derry ran riot. The City fans were in heaven while the Gretna players, so used to success, were in hell and the tie was over as a contest after the first leg.
“We were so relaxed in the build-up to the game,” O’Flynn stated.
“We might have had seven or eight shots on the night and all our goals were worldies. We went 1-0 down and we were fearing the worst. But, honestly, I can’t remember a game, playing or watching, with five goals scored of such high quality, even in the Premiership or internationally. The goals were of ridiculous quality. It was the perfect night for us and at the end we knew were through. We weren’t going to lose 4-0 in the Brandywell.”
For O’Flynn, now two years retired and with a seven-week old baby in tow, some memories are stronger than others, the feeling of being on the pitch is trumped by the emotion the performance and the result stirred up in the jubilant fans.
“For me one of my best moments was walking out and seeing the fans packed into one stand,” he explained.
“We knew there would be a decent crowd but to fill out that stand behind the goal it was remarkable. There were people taking out Credit Union loans and riding the crest of a wave at that stage and while the result was brilliant, the best thing was that so many people enjoyed themselves so much. We made 3,500 so happy and we were jealous we weren’t going back on the boat with them.
“You win games and you win cups, and they’re great, but it’s the people who you go on that journey with, and it’s the staff, the players, the fans and different characters, that’s who you think back to. “The games come and go, but afterwards looking back, you remember the las who you were with.”
Your Most Memorable Game?
The Gretna game. We knew the tie was over at the end of the game. We were brilliant but we were still in shock ourselves at the end of the game.
Your Best/Most Important Goal?
It was an injury-time winner against Shelbourne at the Brandywell. Things were tight at the top and it was important to stay in contention at the time.
Best Player you’ve played against?
I was lucky enough to play against a lot of top players, but the best I ever played against was Jermaine Defoe, a top class player. He was out of this world.
Best team you’ve played against?
It has to be PSG in the Uefa Cup in 2006. The calibre of players was far superior to anything I had faced before.
Best goalkeeper you’ve played against?
Carlo Cudicini was probably the best but Mick Devine from Cork was also a top goalkeeper and ahead of his time, using his feet. His all-round game was quality.