Emmet Friars: recalling turning point in Derry City fortunes
The events in the small Irish village of Ballygawley on a March night back in 2010 proved to be significant in the resurrection of a club tainted by financial irregularities and a first ever relegation.
This year marks a significant milestone since Derry City's brief stay in Division One – a fall from grace brought about by the scandal of ‘double contracts' which busted the club and saw them punished severely by the FAI.
Brought back under new ownership and a new determination to avoid the mistakes of the past, the club had to start from scratch, with no manager, no players and no idea what the future held.
Stephen Kenny agreed to take charge once again, and he set about the unenviable task of building a team from the bottom up, convincing some senior players – who had battled the likes of IFK Gothenburg and PSG just three years earlier - to lead the team in the First Division against the likes of Mervue and Salthill Devon.
Kenny also called on some untried and unknown teenagers as he built an entirely local team for a brand new chapter in the club's history – with players like Patrick McEleney, David McDaid and James McClean about to become household names in the city.
With a mixture of relief, anxiety and optimism, Derry City kicked off the new season hoping for the best, but just a few weeks in it became apparent that the Candystripes were struggling, with just one win in three games.
Emmet Friars, who scored City's first goal as a First Division team, remembers the turning point at Ballygawley clearly to this day.
“We went to Waterford in the third game and we lost and we were terrible,” he recalled.
“I've never seen a worse atmosphere on a bus after that. There wasn't a work spoken and people weren't sleeping. You could tell everyone, even the young lads, were really hurting.
“There was talk of us being favourites for the league but the First Division at that time had some really big names, and we were struggling.
“On the way back we stopped at Ballygawley and we got off the bus and four or five of us – Gerard (Doherty), Mark McChrystal, Eddie (McCallion) and Barry Molloy – were just asking ‘What's going on here, what do we do?'
''We had a chat for five minutes about how we were going to kick on and what we needed to do as a group to get the best out of the young lads, and from there we just kicked on.
''For me, that was the turning point and we seemed to push on from there. That moment sticks with me even to this day.”
That heart to heart proved significant in City's season and future as they won ten successive league games after that, charging out front in the race for the First Division title and promotion back to the top flight. City were dominant and the younger players in particular were catching the imagination of the fans.
“It was going into the unknown,” Friars admitted. “No one really knew what we were going up against. The senior players had never played in the First Division and some of the young lads were only around 17 and had never been tested.
“In the first few games I think the results reflected that, there was a real nervousness around the place. The first game was against Cork and there was a massive crowd and it was an unbelievable night in the Brandywell but the nervousness was there because we just didn't know what we could do at that stage.
“Stephen's discipline and organisation was important. He set the young lads a really good framework to work on, and throw into that the young lads' ability and their desire to do well. A lot of them went on to have brilliant careers so credit has to come to them, and there was the senior players, whose work rate set the tone for others.”
City sealed the title with a victory over title rivals Monaghan United on the last day of the season, with Friars setting up the winner for Mark Farren. City had won the right to be a Premier Division team once again, and the club has not looked back since.
“Winning it to get back to the Premier was where the club deserved to be,” Friars concluded.
“People don't see the work that goes on behind the scenes. Stephen Kenny rightly gets a lot of credit but Declan Devine was huge as well. Stephen was very intense but Declan had the ability to get the best out of you and that's why he is a top manager now, learning from Stephen and adding his own thing.
"I said at the time that I would die a happy man if I could win a league title with Derry City, regardless that it was the First Division, and we did that.”