Eamonn McCann: the music of football in the Derry air

Derry City's Noel King and Alex Krstic celebrate with goalscorer Owen Da Gama
Derry City's Noel King and Alex Krstic celebrate with goalscorer Owen Da Gama

The announcement of a proposed European soccer “Super League” stirred memories of euphoric days for Derry City, of being carried along in the soar and sway of the terrace, for veteran journalist, politician and sports fan Eamonn McCann...

Borussia Dortmund’s 20-year-old Norwegian goal machine Erling Haalang is anybody’s these days for 300 million quid.

Even as we speak, clubs destined, as they believed, for a new European Super-League are reportedly pushing wheelbarrows of cash into position at the head of the queue.

Erling will be loyal to whatever club he chooses, will kiss the badge on the shirt every time he scores for as long as his contract lasts.

Then some other club, some other shirt, some other badge will become the focus of his affection.

That’s the way of it. Players come and players go.

Likewise, managers, owners, boards of directors. Only the fans go on forever.

I could still rhyme off the names of the Derry City side which won the IFA Cup in 1954, a replay of the semi-final against Linfield, two replays of the final against Glentoran.

There never was the like of it.

Even now, I can psyche myself to see fellows come tumbling out of the houses, tripping over joy as the final whistle comes thrilling across the airways. One-nil, O’Neill in the 44th minute.

The second half took longer than the average lifetime.

Charlie Heffron, Tug Wilson, Tommy Houston, Bobby Brolly, Willie Curran, Digger Smyth, Mousey Brady, Jimmy Delaney, Flossie Forsythe, Paddy Toner, Con O’Neill.

That’s Jimmy Delaney of Celtic, United and Scotland. Tommy Houston, captain, ex-Linfield. Clifford Forsythe, future Unionist MP for South Antrim. Bobby Brolly was captain of Northern Ireland Amateurs throughout the ‘50s. (Imagine that.)

Delaney was as bald as a coot.

“We don’t care if Delaney has no hair/Damn the hair we care…”

The London Review of Books observed last year that: “To be a real football fan you have to commit to a team by the age of six, or eight at the latest.”

After that, there is no recorded case of a fan ever switching allegiance. Players are fickle, fans are in love.

Owen Da Gama scores as Derry head for FAI Cup final
Owen Da Gama scores as Derry head for FAI Cup final

Rory Moore sings an anthem to Derry days of filial love on Strength NIA’s just-released “Owen Da Gama.”

Owen arrived from South Africa in 1985, just as Derry burst back into football after 15 years in the wilderness.

In close-layered Black Mambazo harmony: “O, O, Owen Da Gama, Owen Da Gama from South Africa…”

“Da Gama” comes three years after release of Rory’s heroic ode to “Brendan Bradley,” of Derry City, Finn Harps, Athlone Town, Sligo Rovers, still the League of Ireland’s record goal-scorer, 235, 181 of them for Harps. Once hit six against Sligo.

Rory’s lyric told of Brendan pulled over and made to stand at the ditch by nervous-fingered soldiers as he drove home from Ballybofey after training at Finn Park.

“There was no badness in Brendan/Anybody could see that/Anybody who was kind.”

Brendan had been a superstar in the north west.

Owen was something else again, the only player in Ireland with his own fan-club and manager, Johnny Murray, also promoter of a slew of showbands and organiser of Derry’s annual jazz festival.

Owen made a single, too, “Zoom!” which topped the Northern Ireland charts.

Mad things used to happen every whip-about in the League of Ireland.

One local entrepreneur tried to market Owen Pyjamas.

Pure magic in the middle of baton rounds and billows of gas. Ollie Byrne would have been enchanted. (The nightwear never caught on.)

Ollie was chairman of Shelbourne for years, also manager of Skid Row, was crucial to the emergence of Thin Lizzy, had a club on Mary Street in Dublin with a different name every day of the week, or so it seemed.

Shelbourne and Ollie offered football with a pertinent musical vibe.

The heart-scalded eloquence of For Those I Love’s “I Have a Love” draws from the same well of tears, singer David Balfe lamenting the pitiless passing of his friend, artist, poet and fellow Shels fan, Paul Curran, seeing to it that his spirit lives on.

“I have a love, and it will never fade…”

Love for one another co-mingled with a common love of Shelbourne.

The video is mournful, proud, elegiac, flickering with remembered moments of rampage and laughter, flaunting the flag of the Coolock Reds.

There’s no feeling of oneness like being carried along in the soar and sway of the terrace, the swelling euphoria, the plummet to gloom, the cheering, the sneering, the whoops of delight, walking to the ground with a lilt in your step, your own private emotion shared out in the public street, like a spendthrift scattering joy.

For a broad swathe of people of certain age and sensibility, the intimacy of the crowd which we all need to sustain souls was mainly to be found at football games.

The sound of the crowd is the music of the game.

The task now is to save the music from suffocation by couldn't-care, tone-deaf zillionaires and sheiks.