Philip O’Doherty is walking down a corridor at Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium when he is stopped by a recognizable face.
he politician, journalist and activist Eamonn McCann, a figure steeped in Derry’s recent history, interrupts the club’s chairman for a brief chat as kick-off nears the latest showdown with Shamrock Rovers.
McCann recently did a podcast interview reflecting on his memories of attending games at Derry City in the 1950s and O’Doherty is keen to hear the story of how his fellow fan was in the House of Commons one day , when he discovered Clifford ‘Flossy’ Forsyth, a former Candystripes star who later became an MP for the Ulster Unionist Party. Improbable similarities were found through football.
O’Doherty’s first memory of Brandywell is a 1968 match with Glentoran when he was just eight years old, giving him a brief taste of sporting life in the town before The Troubles changed the landscape in every way.
He can share stories from his own amateur football career when it was his turn with Tristar and feuding with Henry McEleney, the talented but “rough and ready” father of current City players Patrick and Shane.
It helps explain why O’Doherty, who became Derry’s main benefactor in late 2009, is doing exactly what a club would expect of someone in that role.
In many ways, he’s an old-school traditional chairman, a local businessman throwing a few pounds into his hometown club. Spending time with O’Doherty confirms this view given his familiarity with the names and faces of the people he met. The lack of an entourage could put people off believing they are in the company of Ireland’s newest billionaire.
Derry City supporters had every reason to take an interest in economic headlines last September. The news that E&I Engineering, a Donegal-based company, has been sold by US firm Vertiv Holdings for up to 2 billion 60 percent of its shares.
It was known locally that O’Doherty was doing well, having already written a sizable check each year for the club he loves, in addition to supporting various community projects. But Billionaire’s Day brought some excitement about what might happen next.
The 61-year-old is reluctant to speak about the deal, but the bare facts speak for themselves. He started E&I in 1986 after working at chemical company DuPont and the Queen’s University graduate has achieved spectacular success with the company which manufactures electrical switchgear and power distribution systems and mainly serves customers in mainland Europe while developing a strong Presence in the United Arab Emirates accelerated the increase.
Employing around 2,100 people locally and internationally, O’Doherty is proud to say that almost a quarter of the workforce at the main Burnfoot factory commute across the border from the Bogside and Creggan areas of Derry. Growing up in nearby Oakfield, he recalls going to his old primary school in Bogside and seeing books that seemed too familiar to him. “You have to give something back,” he says. “Education is important to me”
This ties into his dual vision for Derry, a club that will enjoy the rewards of his work. In 2018, O’Doherty spoke of how it wasn’t “healthy” or “sustainable” for him to close a financial gap at the end of each year, but he’s now trying to use his strengthened position to set building blocks . On the day we meet, O’Doherty was speaking to an architect about plans to build an academy on the Ulster University campus site.
The club’s stadium is council-owned, so proposed improvements are linked to requests for funding, but the academy, which doubles as a training base, is a project O’Doherty is willing to support out of pocket.
“I want to fund the youth academy,” he emphasizes. “If you think about starting a professional football club on a university campus, a lot of people from disadvantaged communities can go there. If you look at US college football, players from poorer backgrounds play the sport and get an education, so I like the idea of working with the university for some of our working class people in Derry. It’s a win-win situation.
“We want fabulous facilities for a professional football team, but at the same time we want to make them accessible.”
What is clear, however, is that the vision is accompanied by short-term ambitions. “I think we can win the league in the next three years,” he says. “I think we have the right manager for it.”
RuaidhRí Higgins was tempted to step away from a role on the Irish staff as Stephen Kenny’s scout and analyst to take the job. O’Doherty liked that angle as Kenny was the first manager he worked with and he believes the 37-year-old shares some of the same qualities.
“I found Stephen an interesting guy, obviously very intense, but the one thing that was very clear to him was that he was 200 percent focused, he wasn’t thinking about anything else. There was no small talk with Stephen, it was all football.
“I know if he didn’t win a game he just wanted to be alone for like half an hour after he spoke to the team. That workaholic streak, that focus I guess, RuaidhRI have inherited many of these qualities. He was taught by the hands of the Master. I often ask him a question and he’s like Stephen, he takes his time. He realizes that sometimes you better think about an answer before you give it.
“I really think he’s going to have a fabulous career and hopefully he spends it at Derry City or at Derry City as much as possible. It took courage for him to return to his hometown club last year when we struggled and I don’t think he got enough credit here for guiding us to Europe.”
Rival clubs are making noise about Higgins getting the kind of support that should guarantee success and they’ve stepped up considerably in the off-season. O’Doherty admits there’s more money flowing into the squad now, but he says it’s being distributed over the long term rather than a sudden inflation in wage bills.
Two weeks ago it was announced that Higgins and promising defender Ronan Boyce have signed new four-year deals. Michael Duffy and Patrick McEleney were lured back from Dundalk on four and three-year deals respectively. New striker Jamie McGonigle, the hero against Rovers, is signed until the end of 2024.
O’Doherty admits that periods in the Candystripes’ history when the club ran into financial difficulties embarrassed the city, and he is determined to avoid a return to those dark days.
“We’re being run properly and while we’re now pushing the boat out a little more – I’m injecting more money – I think it’s being done in a sensible way. With a long contract there is always a risk if a player gets injured, but we are willing to take that risk. There is also a risk of only signing one-year contracts. I’m sure our budget isn’t nearly as big as Shamrock Rovers, but it’s a lot more expensive to live in Dublin.”
McEleney and Duffy’s success with Dundalk angered locals when Derry was at a low ebb, but O’Doherty reckons the fact that they had to leave wasn’t a bad thing for their personal growth. He hated it when they were booed on their return trips because their family was there. “It also made them play better, a total failure of strategy,” he says.
That said, it’s obvious he wants to take Derry to a level where the best locals don’t want to play anywhere else on the island. He himself regularly travels for work, and a trip to the USA is being considered.
“The football club is a great retreat,” he says, “I like to be home for football on Fridays and if we play away in Dublin on a Friday I try to fly there.”
His family understands a hobby that can be stressful and time consuming. “I have a daughter and a son and I think they’re happy to have something to keep me here,” he smiles. “I keep telling my grandchildren – my grandson is four and my granddaughter is three – that I would like to take them to the games. I love the fact that so many kids are leaving now.”
And with his support, a new generation could be on the verge of creating memories that will last a lifetime.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/soccer/league-of-ireland/its-being-done-in-a-sensible-way-meet-philip-odoherty-the-billionaire-driving-derry-citys-dream-41417989.html ‘It’s being done the right way’ – Meet Philip O’Doherty, the billionaire powering Derry City’s dream