Ryan McBride honoured on emotional night in Buncrana as Derry lose 'first game in a very different season'
"In your absence we still play the game. But in your absence, it won't be the same." The closing words of the poem that Kenny Shiels delivered at Ryan McBride's funeral just nine days ago hung over Buncrana.
For everyone involved with Derry City, this was an evening where they tried to return to something approaching normality.
It would start with a powerful expression of grief and solidarity, and end with the pain of a 93rd-minute concession after a spirited comeback from two goals down had temporarily brought joy to their adopted home.
At the final whistle, Candystriped bodies fell to their knees with disappointment. Bray players, who knew they had a job to do, walked around to pick them up. The applause of the crowd that had crammed into Maginn Park lifted them.
They were cheered to the dressing-room, the Derry fans letting this group know exactly what they thought of the efforts on a night where football was the distraction from the tragedy that has rocked their world.
The special edition of the match programme - packed with beautiful words about McBride - managed to convey the significance of this meeting with Bray Wanderers.
"Tonight," read the opening message, "Is the first game in a very different season for Derry City."
The attributes that characterised their efforts before the loss of McBride came to the fore in the second half.
But in a cruel way, the injury-time winner for the Seagulls brought home what Derry are missing. Tim Clancy rose highest to meet a corner, the area that McBride would normally have commanded.
Derry were the better side throughout, missing a host of chances, yet what they lacked was a bit of experience. First-half injuries to senior men Ger Doherty and Rory Patterson drilled home that point.
"If you include Ryan, they're our three senior players," sighed Shiels. "The boys are shocked in there. We've had enough shock this last while, so to lose the game in the way we did is so hard to take."
Shiels was angry at the outcome, and the match officials, but proud of his squad. The difficult circumstances were not used as an excuse.
"There was no emotional disadvantage because the players played brilliantly," he asserted. "We deserved to win."
The preliminaries were all about the man on everybody's mind, though.
Every ticket was sold, a show of support for the players still coming to terms with the devastating loss of the inspirational figure who led them to four wins from their opening four games.
It was a show of support to the family too.
Derry's team bus was set aside to bring McBride's family and close friends to the ground; the side of the vehicle was adorned with the image of the Candystripes skipper celebrating his winning goal against Shamrock Rovers at Tallaght just three weeks ago. It was accompanied by a one-word message, 'Legend'.
His father Lexie made the journey, dressed in the same Derry City jacket that he wore as he walked behind his son's coffin just nine days ago.
Candystripes legend Liam Coyle grew up playing football with Lexie. "Ryan gave him that coat," he explained. "He loves wearing it."
The family were given space to watch the match; the punters left them in peace. Actions would speak louder than words.
Both teams emerged wearing T-shirts with the number 5 on the back. Members of Derry's U-17 and U-19 sides stood in a formation to make out a 5 for the minute's applause, while the Citycubs - City fans under the age of 12 - released balloons into the darkening sky.
The most striking page in the programme was the Citycubs section, featuring pictures of McBride with mascots or with young fans that he posed with at meet-and-greets in his role as captain.
The smiles on the faces made it clear they knew they were posing with a local hero. Those children will grow into adults that fully appreciate the significance of the photo.
Because Derry will never forget. The local newspaper, the Derry Journal, had simply described McBride as their 'eternal captain.'
He wasn't the only person to be honoured on the night. The announcement for the minute's applause also mentioned Martin McGuinness and Margaret O'Doherty, two more integral members of the community. O'Doherty, known affectionately as 'Ma Doc', was the sister of Derry CEO Sean Barrett and wife of former manager Tony O'Doherty.
She was found dead on the day of the McBride and McGuinness funerals that brought Foyleside to a standstill.
This is a club that has experienced an unfair amount of heartbreak in the past 13 months. Mark Farren is never far from their thoughts. City winger Josh Daniels lost his mother, sister, brother-in-law and two nephews in the Buncrana pier disaster.
McBride was a galvanising force in the aftermath, in keeping with his role as a public face for City in the community. Players come and go in football but McBride was different. He was always going to be Derry City for life.
Another programme piece from a former team-mate, Rory Kelly, described attending the wake in Bluebell Hill Gardens, in a house that overlooked the Brandywell, to be greeted by the shock of "this colossus of a man, hands clasped, eyes closed and sporting the colours of his beloved Candystripes".
His football life and personal life were always intertwined and Shiels knew that getting heads back on the game would be a challenge.
Before the game, Coyle echoed those sentiments.
"I'm sure Ryan would say to the players, you have to carry on, you have to try and go and win the match and that's the main thing," he said.
"The last week since the funeral has been sombre, almost low-key. People are still in shock over it, and you can sense everybody is just looking forward to the team getting back on the pitch again."
But the impact of McBride's absence was unavoidable. Shorn of a natural replacement, Shiels switched to a back three for the first time this season. Setbacks for key striker Patterson and goalie Doherty complicated things further.
They started the second half two goals down and with 27-year-old Austrian Lukas Schubert as their oldest performer. There was a sense of foreboding, but the crowd in the cramped Inishowen venue stuck with them.
Aaron McEneff pulled one back from the spot and the venue heaved when Dean Jarvis levelled it up. But there would be a late twist in the tale.
Moving on was never going to be easy.