When the clouds hanging over the Donegal hills on the Inishowen peninsula parted after the rain, the shadow of death that has loomed across League of Ireland side Derry City through the past seven days temporarily lifted. Just before kick-off on Friday evening, primary schoolchildren from the club’s City Cubs side released dozens of red and white balloons into a brightening sky, some of which were carried on the wind westward, towards the Atlantic.
The balloons bore the name of the side’s fallen hero, their captain, Ryan McBride, who – after leading City to a 2-0 victory against Drogheda United on 18 March – died at his home that weekend. After their release came thunderous applause around Maginn Park, a 1,600-capacity stadium that has become City’s temporary home until its old base at Brandywell, across the border in Northern Ireland, is refurbished.
The fans, many in their team’s candy stripe kit, were paying tribute not only to McBride, but also Margaret O’Doherty, the wife of the club’s chairman, Tony, who passed away in the same week. And the clapping, too, was in honour of arguably City’s most famous supporter, the Sinn Féin deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, who was buried on 23 March, soon after McBride’s funeral took place in the same church. Among the supporters gathered at Maginn Park to watch City’s first match since losing their captain was McGuinness’s brother William.
This has been more than just a week of deaths that have shaken City to the core. In the past 12 months, their former striker and one-time youth player for Tranmere and Huddersfield, Mark Farren, died of a brain tumour at the age of 33. Joshua Daniels, City’s Republic of Ireland Under-21 international, lost his mother Ruth, 57, and his 16-year-old sister Jodie Lee in a drowning accident not far from his temporary home ground, when the car they were in skidded off Buncrana pier into the waters of Lough Swilly in March last year. His mother’s grandsons Mark, 12, and Evan, 8, and her son-in-law Sean, 46, were the other victims .
One of those who organised the balloon release, Karen Pyne, is a member of the Brandywell Pride supporters club. She says she will never forget the moment she heard that her captain had died. “I just shouted ‘No, no, I don’t believe it’,” Pyne said. “Then I threw the mobile across the room in anger and disbelief. I refused to believe it at first when I got the call.
“Even talking to you now I cannot believe that I am talking about Ryan in the past tense. Ryan grew up beside the Brandywell stadium; he could see the south stand from his living room. I live just up the road from him. He was part and parcel of everything about our club. Our message on the balloons is that if you find one then take a picture of it wherever you may, remember Ryan and post it on our Facebook page. But there is also a message from us to Ryan’s family – that we are here with you, no matter what.”
Another of those attending Friday’s fixture with Bray Wanderers, which City lost 3-2, was the Derry-born former coach at Cliftonville, Rory O’Boyle. Despite the procession of death and loss affecting the club, O’Boyle was convinced that City, along with its fanbase, would recover.
“People in Derry are very resilient, as they have been through so much,” he said. “They are a real football family and will get through this. Ryan’s death has cast a great cloud over the entire city. He was one of those that came through the club’s excellent youth system. His loss has been terrible and he will be sorely missed, but this club will recover because of the people associated with it.”
Players from the club’s youth sides formed into the shape of a giant ‘5’, the number McBride wore. Paying tribute to the man the fans called Captain Fantastic, the City manager, Kenny Shiels, said: “I know he is here with us tonight. We are all wearing the jerseys with the No5 on the front. He is in all the boys’ hearts.”
Printed in the programme was Shiels’s poem In Your Absence, which the manager penned before McBride’s funeral. Its final lines encapsulate the sense of collective grief gripping the club:
“The big number five, so vivid so clear.
Ryan we love you with all our heart
A giant so gentle and now we’re apart
In your absence we still play the game
But in your absence it won’t be the same.”
Life-long Derry fan Ruari O’Kane compared McBride’s importance to supporters to that of John Terry. “Terry epitomised all that Chelsea is to their supporters and that is exactly the way we see Ryan – he was a leader, a warrior on the field,” he said.
O’Kane’s history of following Derry City is also a reminder of the way the club has picked itself up before from trial and tribulation. “I was only five when they came back from the dead and have supported them ever since,” the 39-year-old said.
He was referring to the club’s resurrection in 1985, after 14 wilderness years. Founded in 1928, it won titles and cups in the Irish League, but was driven out of existence by the Troubles because of security concerns in 1971, as well as the opposition of some in the Belfast football establishment.
Back in Buncrana on Friday evening, local papers were advertising the annual Darkness Into Light walk through the town next month, in solidarity with those bereaved or affected by suicide and self harm. On the same night, the Derry City family began its own journey from darkness to light after one of the most challenging years in its history.
The miracle of Derry City and its return via the Dublin-controlled League of Ireland is one of football’s great comeback stories.