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McDaids Football Special: An oral history of the Donegal delicacy

Anyone for a Football Special with ice cream?

Profile Pictures - Football Special | Facebook Source: Facebook

ASK ANY SELF-respecting Donegal head about McDaids Football Special and you’re likely to be met with misty eyes and watering taste buds.

The  soft drink (or ‘mineral’, if we’re going to keep this authentic) has been manufactured in Ramelton in east Donegal since 1949.

It’s one of the county’s proud delicacies and its formula is a closely guarded secret.

Journalist and Donegal native Oliver Farry remembers Football Special tasting like “no other soft drink”: 

It made Irn Bru seem as recherché as buttermilk; it turned your mouth pink without tasting like gentian violet. It also had football in its name, which made it the best drink ever.

Football Special was developed originally to “help celebrate the numerous successes of local football club Swilly Rovers” and was first called ‘Football Cup’; it was designed to be poured into the cup of a trophy to mark a win.

Look what we made today...Glass bottles anyone? Source: Facebook

The summer months and the sunny weather meant it was tricky to get hold of McDaids CEO Edward McDaid.

However, in between deliveries and orders and meetings he told DailyEdge.ie that the company was borne out of his grandfather’s innate knowledge of a good customer base, and his family’s ties to the distribution and pub trades.

With the family business graduating from the shop to the van business to a bottling factory with a contract with Guinness, Edward says it was his father and his uncles who came up with the Football Special secret formula.

The soft drinks game is a seasonal business. So in the winter time when it was quiet they’d be tinkering with ingredients – that wasn’t unusual.
My Uncle Eamon had been trained in a soft drinks company in Northern Ireland, and learned the discipline of writing down everything that went into every batch. He was very diligent in writing everything down.

And so when the Football Special formula was devised – a concoction of syrups and juices and flavours tracked meticulously by Eamon – they knew they were onto a winner.

Inextricably linked to local football teams the drink soon grew in popularity, particularly among the seaside towns of the Donegal coast: Portsalon, Falcarragh, Ballyshannon, Bundoran, and into Derry.

special Source: Kevin Kelly/@kevin7kelly

For a group of lads from Ballyshannon, their McDaids loyalty is unwavering.

Michael McGrath says:

When Donegal GAA were going strong in the early 90s half-time was marked with a bottle of Football Special and a packet of Tayto.

Philip McLoone remembers:

It accompanied any under-age sporting medal I got.. any sporting achievement was marked with a medal and a (glass) bottle of Football Special! In later life it became an acceptable mixer!!

Hi brother Michael recalls that their cousin Ciaran’s house in Dublin was:

fully stocked with Football Special for the famous 2012 Donegal All-Ireland winning season.

It wasn’t for everyone though. Former Xposé and Phantom 105.2 presenter and Donegal girl Michelle Doherty said:

There was a bit of fizz in it but not that much and it was quite sweet. Oh I’ll be disowned now for dissing Football Special.

Football Special's Photos - Football Special | Facebook Source: Facebook

David McDyer from Glenties told DailyEdge.ie that his fondest memory was putting “a slice of ice cream in a glass and pouring McDaids football special into it.

His cousin Sheloa Nichols said:

Everyone used to drink it when I was a kid there (in Glenties). You would get it at the penny sweet shops. Ahhh suddenly overrun with memories of red lemonade and cheese and onion crisps at the local pub after Sunday mass.

The mixing of Football Special with ice-cream is a proud tradition in Donegal.

Michael McGrath has the technique down:

When I say Football Special and ice cream, you put the ice cream in a pint glass and then SLOWLY pour the Football Special on top. F**KIN YUMMY!

Edward McDaid says that the formula of Football Special means it mixes well in an ice cream float.

Most of the company’s products (including their popular smooth banana soft drink) use “heavy duty syrups” sourced from Dutch fruit essence suppliers who McDaid says “own the banana plantations, so it’s almost like dealing directly with the farmers”.

The tendency now is to reproduce those essences artificially, but we stay away from that.

products

Try as you might, finding Football Special and associated products outside Donegal and parts of the North can prove difficult.

Oliver Farry wrote:

I imagined [Football Special] was the stuff that victorious football teams drank from the cup but later when I started appearing on such teams myself I was shocked to learn there was no McDaids Football Special outside Donegal. We had to make do with red lemonade, which was tantamount to imposing Babycham on Formula 1 champions.

Edward McDaid says that national distribution has always been a problem, with the company dealing directly with smaller independent shops.

We did think that we’d be able to build a national distribution network but the recession knocked that on the head, and with so many of the smaller shops shutting down.

The company is now focusing on building the brand nationally through social media, and selecting one shop in areas around the country to stock Football Special.

For now though, most devotees head on home for a glass of their favourite…

Thanks to Where’s Grandad for permission to republish an extract of this piece by Oliver Farry.

Is there a local delicacy you think we should explore? Let us know. tips@dailyedge.ie

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