Derry ponder a French Revolution
Revolutionary ties between France and Ireland have always been strong. The French Revolution in 1789 was widely supported by the Irish, where the ideals of 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity' provided heady inspiration for generations to come.
Nine years after the French revolution, the Catholic and Protestant populations of Ireland themselves joined together to rebel in pursuit of their own Irish version of 'La Republique'.
That event even saw the revolutionary ties between the two nations solidified, with the French sending troops and ships to help the Irish in their endeavours against the old enemy.
This week has once again witnessed large numbers of French amassing in Ireland to participate in an unlikely revolution. However, this time it is a French institution that is the target, whilst the odds of success are considered by some to be much greater than those that faced the Irish back in 1798.
At 7pm this evening, Eircom League outfit Derry City FC will take the field against Paris St Germain in the First Round Proper of this year's UEFA Cup. The game will take place at Derry City's Brandywell Stadium - a compact and partially run-down ground in an area of the city that was itself an epicentre of political revolution during the province's recent troubles.
Despite being a Northern Irish team, Derry City have for the last 21 years been plying their trade in the Republic's Eircom League - a situation brought about by the northern Irish Football Association's rather belligerent attitude towards Brandywell stadium and its environs. Battles against 'the powers that be' have been a recurring theme throughout the history of the club and its city.
When it comes to the battle on the pitch this evening, the odds would appear to be firmly stacked against Derry in this proverbial 'David versus Goliath' tie. Despite being in existence as a club for only 36 years (less than half the lifespan of their Irish opponents) PSG are a powerhouse of French football.
Playing in-front of 48,000 capacity crowds at former French national stadium Parc de Princes, they have been a regular feature at the business end of Ligue 1 since the early 90s. But it is their endeavours in Europe that have proven a particular source of pride for the club and its supporters.
The Parisians famously qualified for five European tournament semi-finals in a row between 1993 and 1997 - lifting the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1996 and finishing runners-up a year later. They also won the InterToto Cup in 2001, and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 1995. When it comes to European pedigree in that decade, there are only a handful of teams who can match the consistent presence of PSG.
Derry City have also been busy making European history of their own lately. During their Irish League reign, they only qualified for international competitions twice - though they still managed to become the first side from the province to negotiate their way through a round in Europe in 1965.
Since joining the Republic's league in 1985, the club has fared less well on its travels; with seven European appearances prior to this season, their scorecard read 11 defeats, two draws and only one win. The last of those appearances was a double UEFA Cup defeat to Cypriot side Nicosia Apoel in 2003.
However, Irish club football has undergone seismic progress in the few years since Derry last graced the European stage. This was highlighted by Cork City's defeat of Cypriot Champions League entrant Apollon Nicosia in July of this year - only three years after Derry's double-defeat to a Cypriot team of similar calibre.
Whereas progression through a round of European competition used to be viewed as a huge success in itself for a side from the Republic of Ireland, such results have become so common place in the last few years that it is now failure to navigate the early rounds in Europe that draws attention.
This season was the first year that all four of the Eircom League's representatives in Europe made to the second round of their respective competitions - and were it not for a cruel 11-10 defeat on penalties to a Norwegian opponents IK Start, FAI Cup holders Drogheda United would be joining Derry in the First Round of the UEFA Cup.
A switch to summer football has been a key ingredient in this Irish recipe for European advancement, as has the advent of professional football at the top clubs and the return of a substantial number of skillful young Irish players who had been languishing in reserve teams throughout England.
Even with the vast improvement in quality of Irish teams in recent years, however, Derry's progress in this year's UEFA Cup has still caught everyone by surprise. The first qualifying round in July drew them against the toughest opponents possible, twice UEFA Cup winners IFK Gothenburg. No-one gave the Irish team a chance - admittedly, not even their own fans.
Gothenburg had already budgeted for progress to the group stages of the UEFA Cup this year, and must have felt they were well on their way once the draw was made. With a team containing two players fresh from representing Sweden in the World Cup, they had every right to feel confident. But there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and the Swedish giants made the mistake of positioning themselves on the wrong side of that divide.
With captain Niclas Alexandersson stating in media interviews that he viewed the second leg match in Ireland as an opportunity for a holiday, Derry City quietly went about their preparations in proving him wrong. Neither Swedish nor Irish TV sent a single television camera to either leg of the round, and only 3,000 Gothenburg supporters entered the 43,000-seater Ullevi stadium to watch what fans and media alike thought was a foregone conclusion.
Recent European results between Irish and Swedish clubs should have hinted at what lay in-store for Gothenburg. In 2004 and 2005, Cork City knocked Swedish opponents out of European competition, and as recent battles between last year's top two sides in Ireland had shown, Derry City are more than capable of beating Cork.
But somehow, no-one in Sweden took the hint. In performances that left the lacklustre Swedish team feeling like they'd been hit by a steamroller, Derry City put in superb team efforts home and away to win each leg 1-0. The Irish club's noisy and colourful support went crazy. The Swedish press went apoplectic.
The second preliminary round saw Derry drawn against 2006 Scottish Cup finalists Gretna in their first-ever European outing. Gretna are somewhat of a Cinderella outfit. Up until four years ago they were plying their trade in the Northern Premier League in England, playing in front of the proverbial one man and his dog. Then along came Brookes Mileson - an eccentric millionaire with no links to the Scottish borders town, but with a philanthropic leaning towards non-league football. He transferred the team to the Scottish league pyramid in 2002, and began to pump millions into making them a full-time outfit capable of holding their own in the Scottish Premier League.
Back-to-back promotions from 2004 gave the team with the slogan 'Living the Dream' a habit of winning, and some might say an overly-confident invincibility complex. So when Derry City's name was pulled out of the hat to face them in the second preliminary round, Gretna fans made the same mistake the Swedes had done a round earlier and assumed it was all a done deal.
Yet again, the glaring gap between the perceived and actual standard of Irish football was to be exposed. There was a widespread belief in Scotland that Gretna would win easily - after all, they were only facing an Irish team. Even the bookies, who you would expect to be well informed on such matters, opted for expectation over investigation and put Derry at a generous 6/1 to win the away leg.
The view from Ireland, however, was markedly different. Regular access to televised Scottish football enabled followers of the domestic game in Ireland to make a much more informed judgement with regards the relative standard of the two leagues, and they tipped Derry to nudge it on aggregate. But nobody fore-saw that the gap in class that was eventually exposed would be so huge.
The dream turned into a nightmare for the Scottish club as they were comprehensively thrashed 5-1 in the first leg in Motherwell. In the process, Derry scored a set of four second half goals that will probably remain unsurpassed in terms of quality in any European tournament this year.
With their hopes in tatters and the tie effectively over before the second leg began, the SPL-elect team fought hard to secure a 2-2 draw two weeks later in Derry. But the aggregate score told a clear story; a professional Scottish outfit with multi-million pound backing, who are the bookies favourites to progress to the SPL next season, had been destroyed 7-3 on aggregate by an Irish side. Yet another team had under-estimated Derry. And yet another team saw their illusions cruelly shattered.
And so to PSG. Were it not for the quality of performances that Derry City have exhibited in their UEFA Cup exploits to date, absolutely no-one would be giving the Irish club a chance. But all is also not well for the Parisian aristocrats these days. The team has made a dreadful start to this year's Ligue 1 - registering only one win in five matches to currently linger a point above the relegation zone in 15th place.
Conversely, Derry City are flying-high; in the final of the Irish League Cup, the semi-final of the FAI Cup and four points off the top of the league with two games in hand.
PSG also appear to be suffering to a degree from the same over-confidence towards their opponents that was to prove so costly to both Gothenburg and Gretna before them. Their manager Guy Lacombe seems more concerned with their tricky away fixture at Monaco on Saturday - a game that could well decide how long he will remain in the hotseat.
He therefore opted to rest two of his French international players from the squad that arrived in Derry three hours late yesterday evening (due to a player reportedly sleeping in! Thorough preparation indeed).
The PSG squad is still full of talent - with Portuguese international Pauleta playing up-front as captain along with fellow World Cup star Bonaventure Kalou from the Ivory Coast. But by focusing his mind more on PSG's home worries in an attempt to save his job, Lacombe may have unintentionally lined himself up for a more spectacular fall should the Irish club pull off any sort of result tonight.
One thing is certain. The highly-paid PSG aristocrats will not like the spartan conditions on offer at the Brandywell. In another example of Derry's seemingly endless battle against the powers that be, their stadium is in the ownership of the local Council - who have steadfastly refused to enable the club to develop it to any appropriate standard.
As a result, the cramped changing rooms are barely able to accommodate the full travelling PSG squad, and the French team will have to traverse a muddy training area to go from the changing rooms to the pitch. The neglect of the stadium also means that only 3,000 seated tickets have been available for the match - a number that could easily have been sold five times over.
A further 1,000 tickets have been sold for a charity screening of the game live in the local theatre, whilst hundreds of supporters will gather in the city cemetery and other high-level vantage points overlooking the ground in its topographical hollow.
For the Gretna game, a group of frustrated supporters unable to secure tickets even pulled the genius stroke of hiring an open-top tour bus and parking it next to the ground, so they could peer over the wall and watch the game in comfort.
A city that is usually football mad has reached boiling point for this tie, and every possible ruse to see the game will doubtless be tried and double-tried.
And so the stage is set for a match that pundits like Mark Lawrenson have labelled the tie of the round. There is likely to be little positive to be gained from this seemingly unbalanced fixture for the French. Anything short of a comprehensive win in both legs is likely to be viewed by the French media as further fuel to throw onto the flames of a team and a manager in a mini-crisis, and with Derry likely to fight for every ball as if their lives depended upon it, PSG may find such an outcome frustratingly difficult to secure.
Derry have a notoriously mean defence, and have yet to lose a game at home this season. They also have no genuine expectations of progress from the tie, nothing to lose and a lot to prove as they did against Gothenburg and Gretna.
As you'd expect from a club with a history of rising to the challenge of adversity, you can't help but feel that Derry City revel and draw inspiration from their role as rank outsiders within such contests. The chapter is therefore ready to be written of another Irish role in a French revolution - though this time it is PSG and their embattled manager who may find themselves on the wrong end of Madame Guillotine.