How John Hume played a key role in bringing new life to Derry City FC
Hume was a towering figure in his home town and his influence extended to its football club too
JIM RODDY could barely believe his eyes. It is the morning of February 8, 2003, and the chairman of Derry City is sitting alongside his manager, Kevin Mahon.
It is the only hint of normality in a quite surreal gathering, only hours after seeing the city’s fabled side in action at the Nou Camp.
Now, around a sumptuous breakfast table creaking with churros and tortillas are gathered sundry political luminaries of Barcelona.
The Catalan city’s football club are represented by their president, Joan Gaspart; they are the official hosts.
But none of them would be here without the guest of honour. John
Hume is nominally representing Derry City. But John Hume represents everyone.
That Derry City might conceivably invite the most famous club in world football to the crumbling Brandywell south of the Bogside seems improbable enough. But it is Hume’s captivation of his intimate audience that so stuns the chairman.
“He had them in the palm of his hands,” recalled Roddy.
Spanish loyalists and Catalan separatists were in attendance as Hume, of free Derry and now a freeman of Barcelona, reached again for the now seminal passage from his Nobel speech of five years earlier.
“It made you realise that his was a universal message, that the local was also the global,” says Roddy now. “And around the table, friend and foe were all concurring with nods of their heads at the simplicity and humanity of this message.
“He made them melt. This was John’s great ability. To be such an ordinary man but to appear to others as one so extraordinary. And though it seemed to others like such an effort, he didn’t have to try put on an act at all. He just played himself.”
The friendly later that summer brought Frank Rijkaard and his bejewelled Barca side, led by the whitetoothed perma-smiler Ronaldinho, to the city whose historic walls so often symbolised darkness and death within.
Barcelona may have thumped City 5-0 but it was as if the summer Samba of the Brazilian magician’s dancing feet, culminating in his wondrous fifth goal, represented the final footsteps of a remarkable journey by the so often troubled city and its talismanic torchbearer.
Hume was once a ball-boy in the stadium and would later use the venue to shield himself and his fraught comrades from the bullets of enemy fire. On that hot August night it was now a symbol of peace.
“I was a fireman in the ’80s and there used to be riots every week but when Derry entered the league, it was like the taps were turned off,” says Roddy. “All the energy was put into football.”
‘To be such an ordinary man but to appear to others as one so extraordinary’
As a quite different, eery calm descended on a virtually deserted Richmond Park last evening, it seemed oddly poignant that Hume was being commemorated by a minute’s silence.
Brian Kerr was amongst those paying tribute to a titanic figure in this country’s history.
“I got a shiver of upset when I heard that he was gone because he’s been such an influential person through my lifetime,’’ Kerr said.
“He was such a beacon of hope and good sense and practicality and decency in those most horrible of times.”
Derry and St Pat’s were each formed in 1929; both are firmly entrenched in community and would class themselves as, perhaps, outsiders, which arguably strengthened their bond.
Before City re-entered the league in 1985, supporters held a press conference in the Burlington but nervous club officials didn’t want any existing LOI clubs to attend.
Only one did. St Pat’s. Each club has verged on extinction in recent times; indeed, Hume had to conjure up contacts with Manchester United (Pat Crerand) and Celtic, via Martin O’Neill, to help his side evade a terminal decline.
Hume – with many others – breathed new life into the club but saved it from death, too.
His own death yesterday was a release from an imprisonment within his once acute mind, his dementia a thief of all the pleasures of later life that might have been the peace-maker’s personal reward.
“His love for sport was there enough to continue going to Derry City.
‘‘He had a big handshake and a welcoming vibe off him to a football person.
“His health deteriorated earlier than maybe it should because of the challenges that he took on. He’s one of the heroes of Irish history.”
“Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict”
The team he loved so well: John Hume celebrates with Derry City players after their Airtricity League First Division victory in 2010