For the first time in fifteen years, Finn Harps will take their place in the last four of the FAI Ford Cup when they take on reigning League Champions St. Patrick’s Athletic at Richmond Park on Sunday (kick-off 1.45pm).
Sunday’s game will be the first time since Jonathan Speak hit the winner in a 2-1 victory over Galway United in a rain soaked Terryland Park in April 1999 that Finn Harps have reached this stage of the competition.
And it is only the sixth time since entering League of Ireland football in 1969 that Harps have progressed to this stage of the competition.
While Harps’ previous five appearances in the semi-final were played on a more level playing field, there is no doubt that Ollie Horgan’s side are up against it on Sunday.
Harps were the team that the other three semi-finalists would have wanted before the draw last month. Away to St. Pat’s was the last draw Horgan or Harps wanted, so while they would have been disappointed, Liam Buckley was probably delighted to get the last remaining First Division club left in the competition.
The gap between the two sides couldn’t be greater. Since the two clubs last met in 2008, Pat’s have been involved in an FAI Cup Final (2012), a Setanta Cup Final (2010), finished runners-up in the League (2008) and then become League Champions last year. Harps during the same period haven’t finished above fifth in the First Division.
Yet, Harps will travel to Richmond Park on Sunday with nothing to lose. Everyone already has them written off and it means that the players can go and enjoy the occasion without the pressures of what a match like this involves. If they lose, . . well, that’s what was expected of them.
However, as the Donegal GAA team showed at the end of August in their All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin in Croke Park, a team should never be written off before the game begins. That day, odds of 10/1 could be obtained on a victory for Donegal. Greater odds are likely to be found for Donegal’s senior soccer side as they make the trip to the capital this weekend.
“Obviously there is a good atmosphere around the club but I think everybody is realistic about what we are going into in Inchicore,” said Harps boss Ollie Horgan as he prepares for Sunday semi-final in his first year in charge at Harps.
“Most of our players have only seen the likes of Keith Fahy and company on television, never mind playing against them. It’s good for the club in general to be involved at this stage especially the Board who have worked their socks off trying to put buses on the road and feed the lads up and down the country all year,” said Horgan.
“Pats aren’t league champions for no reason,” he continued. “They are a top class side with top quality from Brendan Clarke up to Chris Forrester and more to add in reserve. There is a huge gulf in ability between us and Pats, home venue adds to our difficulties but we have to keep positive.
“Everybody wanted to get us in the semi final draw, and we had 6 possibilities – the three opponents home or away and we got our sixth choice! Pats got their first choice as their supporters at the draw were quick to celebrate. Look our choices weren’t great either way,” said Horgan.
Horgan knows that his side will be written off by seasoned watchers of the League of Ireland, but is keen to stress that upsets are part and parcel of cup football.
“I don’t think anyone involved in the league will expect much from us, and our indifferent league form sitting middle of the First Division would point to that as well,” he said
“But stranger things have happened and in a two-horse race you just don’t know what could happen.”
Horgan will have a near full-strength panel available for Sunday’s trip to Dublin. The only doubts are over the fitness of Brian McGrory and Gareth Harkin who are carrying slight knocks.
Sunday’s game will the fifth time that the two clubs have met in the Cup. Like this weekend, the previous four games have all been played in Dublin. Pats have had home advantage on three of the four previous occasions – and made it count by winning each time. Harps’ one victory came in the 1974 Final, which was of course played at Dalymount Park.
The will be Harps’ sixth time to play in the Cup semi-final. Their first appearance was in 1974 when they defeated Athlone Town 5-0 in Dundalk before going on to win the Final against St. Pat’s. Paddy McGrory, Brendan Bradley (2), Terry Harkin and Charlie Ferry found the net for Harps that day in Oriel Park. Ferry would score again in the Final meaning that he had scored in every round of the Cup.
Their next appearance came two years later with Drogheda United winning 1-0 at Dalymount Park. It was the other Louth club, Dundalk, who knocked Harps out at the semi-final stage in 1981 when they won 1-0 at Milltown.
Harps would have to wait 17 years before playing in another semi-final and by this time neutral venues were no longer used for the last four ties. Harps had home advantage against Shelbourne in 1998, and in the first ever semi-final to be televised live, Harps and Shels played out a scoreless draw. The replay three days later in Tolka Park was interrupted for the best part of an hour by a bomb scare just before half-time. Shels though would progress to the final due to a controversial second half spot-kick.
However, Harps were back in the semi-finals the following season and beat Galway United at Terryland Park by the odd goal in three with Donal O’Brien and Jonathan Speak on the scoresheet for Harps. However, Bray ran out winners in the final after a second replay on a 2-1 scoreline after the previous two ties had finished in 0-0 and 2-2 draws.
Kevin McHugh is the only link with the current squad to the team that played Galway in 1999. Then, a 19-year-old McHugh came on as a second half substitute for James Mulligan.