Derry and District: Lockdown exit boost for 100 year-old league

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D&D footballersImage source, Derry Journal
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Seventeen teams are competing in the D&D this season

It is the Londonderry grassroots football league that has nurtured future Premier League players and developed international footballers.

Former Man City captain John Crossan and Northern Ireland internationals Felix Healy and Liam Coyle have played in its senior ranks.

As youngsters, so too did James McClean, Paddy McCourt and Shane Duffy.

Now as the Derry and District (D&D) League marks its centenary, there's renewed post-lockdown hope.

"A few years back we didn't think we'd see the D&D make it to the centenary year," secretary Willie Barrett told BBC News NI.

Amid the distractions of modern life, many players' interest in playing Sunday morning football was declining.

A few years ago, the league's membership had slumped to only seven clubs.

"It was, at that stage, panic time," said Mr Barrett.

"But thankfully there's been a resurgence and the number of teams on the rise again."

That is in part, he added, "because lockdown and the pandemic has reminded so many players that they actually love playing the game".

Image source, Derry Journal
Image caption,
John Crossan (standing third from left) and Jim McLaughlin (kneeling second from left) - manager of Derry City FC's historic treble winning team of 1988-89 - both played for the Foyle Harps team in the mid-1950s

It is 100 years since the D&D's inaugural season 1921/22 season which was born from a need to give structure to the city's love of the game.

In its first 50 years, it flourished and by the mid-1970s, as the league entered its heyday, there were close to 70 teams contesting for honours and bragging rights every Sunday morning.

"That really was when the D&D was in its pomp," Mr Barrett said.

The talent on display week in, week out, he added, was "just unbelievable".

Image source, Popperfoto/Getty
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John Crossan (centre) - pictured with Colin Bell (left) and Chris Jones (right) - captained Manchester City during his career

This is a league of some pedigree.

"Every player that came from Derry to have played international football, every one, all played in the D&D," Mr Barrett said.

Former Derry City star and Northern Ireland international Liam Coyle is among them.

He grew up hearing the stories of his uncles and his father Fay - part of the 1958 Northern Ireland World Cup squad - playing in the D&D.

His formative footballing aspirations were not of playing for any of the English, Scottish or European giants of the game. Instead he dreamed of playing for Brandywell Harps in the D&D.

Image source, INM/Getty Images
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Derry City returned from 13 years of footballing exile in 1985. Liam Coyle believes the D&D kept football alive in the city during this time.

He made his debut in the league in 1982, aged 14.

"You have to remember that this was when Derry City was out of football so the D&D was a godsend, the saviour of football in the city," said Mr Coyle.

In 1972 - a year regarded as one of the worst of the Troubles in Northern Ireland - a supporters' bus from visiting Ballymena United was burned on a visit to play Derry City.

Teams refused to travel to the club's Brandywell ground and the club moved their home games to Coleraine for a year before severing ties with the Irish League.

After years in the footballing wilderness, Derry City was accepted into the Republic's League of Ireland in 1985.

Mr Coyle added: "You had the very best local players in the D&D then, every side had a senior player or two, players who were at Coleraine or Finn Harps or Sligo turning out for them on a Sunday morning.

"I think I remember Felix Healy playing in the D&D not long after after he had just come back from playing in the World Cup in Spain."

The crux of the Derry City team to win Ireland's domestic treble in 1989 - the only side ever to do so - were schooled in the wiles of the game in the D&D, he added.

Image source, DCSDC
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Derry's mayor is covering the cost of the pitches needed to host this season's matches.

The league's 2021 season kicked off earlier in May.

For the next three months, matches will be played on council-owned pitches across the city and the league's administration is being looked after by an army of volunteers.

In any other non-pandemic year, they would have been honoured with a civic reception in the city's Guildhall to mark the centenary, Derry's Mayor Brian Tierney said.

Instead, he is paying the costs of the pitches the league's now 17 teams will play on this season.

He said the D&D has "played a central role in community of life" over the past 100 years.

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