BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THERE’S nothing like a derby fixture to get the blood of a football supporter boiling.
Finn Harps make the hopeful trip to Brandywell Stadium in Derry this evening looking to pull off an unlikely result and place a rare result in the credit side of a derby day balance sheet that is tipped massively in favour of the Candystripes.
Indeed, it would surely not be an exaggeration to suggest that the Harps-Derry fixture is one of the most one-sided, lop-sided derbies in world football.
Leaving aside the pre-season game between the two that used to be played for the ‘Ulster Tyre Cup’, the teams have played a total of 56 games and Harps have won just five of those.
Two of those wins were in the Irish News Cup – one of which represents one of only two occasions on which Harps have returned from the Lone Moor Road on the winning side.
Outside of the two Irish News Cup wins, which were played largely with reserve teams, recorded in December 1997 and March 1999, just three wins have been posted by Harps, with two of those coming in the League Cup.
The League Cup wins book-end the brief list of Harps successes over City.
The first was that fateful August Sunday in 1997 when Sammy Johnston forever etched his named into the annals of Finn Harps.
Signed from Glenavon that summer, Johnston struck twice as Harps came from a goal down to win 2-1. That evening, Johnston’s place in the heart of Finn Park was secured; for the first time since Derry’s entry to the League of Ireland, Harps held the bragging rights.
“You’d have thought that we had won the World Cup that night Sammy Johnston hit the two goals,” says Paddy McGrenaghan, who was at Harps for all five wins over City.
“That meant so much from a Harps point of view. Finally we had beaten them and it was mental that game.”
Harps’ record at Brandywell is abysmal. Aside from a 2-0 success in the Irish News Cup semi-final in 1999 (goals by Shane Bradley and Kevin McHugh), that ‘Sammy Johnston game’ is the only other win by Harps at the Foyleside venue.
Just four draws have been recorded at Brandywell, with Harps scoring 15 and conceding 52 on their derby travels.
“We always went into those matches positive and optimistic,” says McGrenaghan. “There were many days we went to play Derry and we had as good a team, if not a better one, than them and in fact we expected a lot of days to beat them.
“I just couldn’t put my finger on what happened in those games…”
Noel King has experiences on both sides of the north-west divide. As a player and manager with Derry City, he enjoyed several wins over Harps, but it’s his spell as boss at Harps for which the derby here will be forever in his mind.
In December 2003, the teams locked horns in a promotion relegation play-off. The first leg at Finn Park was scoreless, setting up a winner-takes-all return game in Derry.
King believed firmly that it was written in the stars for him to guide Harps up and relegate City in doing so.
“The obvious thing in that game was trying to break the hoodoo – trying to get that one up on Derry that was going to put them down,” says the Dubliner, who is now Republic of Ireland Under 21 manager, this week.
It was Liam Coyle, though, who secured a dramatic win for City in front of a packed house at Brandywell.
In his final game for the club, the legendary striker scored a controversial winner in extra-time after Kevin McHugh’s dramatic late equaliser had cancelled out Mark Farren’s opener.
“Of all the derby games I played in, that was the biggest because of the importance of it all,” Coyle says.
“Look at what has happened in Derry since, with all the memories from Stephen Kenny’s years – that might never have happened had we not beaten Harps that night.”
Three of the Harps wins came in the one season, in 1997/98. Donal O’Brien struck a winner in a League game in Ballybofey in February ‘98 – it stands alone as Harps’ only League win in 28 attempts against their great rivals.
Charlie McGeever master-minded four of the wins as Harps boss, with Gavin Dykes in charge of the other – the September 2000 League Cup win, when Alec Nesovic netted the only goal at Finn Park, which happens to be the last time Harps enjoyed derby day success.
“For a good majority, Derry City just had better players, and that is just putting it simply,” Coyle says. “Harps had a strong side under Charlie and they should maybe have beaten us a couple of more times in that era. But for the rest of it, Derry was just the better team.”
There’s a school of thought too that Derry have some sort of gypsy curse on Harps. An Indian sign looms over Harps any time derby day arrives; a group of school kids in Candystripes could spook Harps.
“I definitely think there is a mental block with Harps,” Coyle says. “Even when Harps had their good teams, they couldn’t quite get a period of dominance over Derry.”
That’s not a notion to which Paddy McGrenaghan subscribes, however: “I don’t believe in mental blocks or stuff like that. Mind you, there were games where we went there knowing we were in big trouble before we even kicked off. They were a bogey team I suppose, but there was nothing in the way of mental blocks.
“For a lot of it, luck just wasn’t on our side. Even in that play-off – aside from the Cup final that was my biggest game in my 11 years at Harps – we didn’t get the rub of the green.”
Tonight, depleted Harps head for Brandywell with no expectations. In the three FAI Cup games between the teams, Harps haven’t scored a goal against Derry.
Their overall record is wretched, giving them no hope in many eyes.
But yet, the derby dream still lures and patched up Harps go tonight for what could be the biggest game so far in some of their careers.
“These are big games,” King says.
“You can feel the tension in it, whether there are 2,000 there or it’s a sell-out. That is the level of rivalry that is there.
“People elsewhere in the League, Dublin for example, don’t believe what it means up there. It’s a great football area and people are so passionate about their football.”