HARPS BACK IN THE BIG TIME AND WITH THE POTENTIAL TO STAY THERE
In the week when Finn Harps mark their return to the Premier Division of the League of Ireland with an opening night fixture against their fiercest rivals, I happened across an old soccer magazine hidden away in a drawer in the spare room.
Dated March 1996, the monthly publication, ’11-A-Side’ was, as far as I recall, short-lived but contained plenty in the way of items and features on the domestic game.
There was a piece promoting the introduction of a third division for the League of Ireland with the writer highlighting impressive performances by some of the country’s junior clubs in the F.A.I. Cup to push his case including Fanad United’s trouncing of then Division One leaders, Bray Wanderers.
Across the page, there was a reference to a reverse thumping suffered by Finn Harps in the league against the same opposition, 0-4 at the Carlisle Grounds. The then manager, Patsy McGowan, was none too pleased with his team’s performance but was, the writer pointed out, also frustrated with the match referee. “McGowan wondered why the referee had to travel all the way from Waterford and came up with the real haymaker ‘when there are plenty of bad referees in Dublin who could have done the same job.’ “
But it was a two-page spread inside that caught this eye – an interview with then Harps midfielder, Pierce Walsh, who was, the headline told us, dreaming of “a return to the Premier Division with the Finns.”
The Dubliner had linked up with Harps the previous season, arriving from Monaghan United in the company of Ronnie Murphy and Noel Melvin.
“When Pierce moved to Finn Park, he was impressed with the set-up he found there. At the time the Harps were pushing strong for promotion and in the end just missed out on moving up by losing a play-off with Athlone Town.
Finn Harps remain one of the First Division top sides and must be very strong contenders to make the big step up to Premier football,” the article stated.
Walsh himself believed Harps had the support to sustain a side in the top flight.
“Clubs like Longford Town, Kilkenny City and Monaghan have all got the floodlights installed in the last year or so but it doesn’t seem to have made much difference to their attendance.
I don’t think there is the same local interest in these clubs compared to Finn Harps whose potential is massive. Against Derry City we got a gate of 3,000 and we have often got gates of two to three thousand. If we were up in the Premier Division and winning our games we would get huge crowds, the interest is there,” Walsh told the magazine.
Harps did get promotion that year and now slow forward twenty years and the scenario is the same. Another season beckoning in the top flight and that potential the former Harps midfielder spoke about, again waiting to be tapped into.
There will, for sure, be another 3,000 plus crowd for this Friday night’s match against Derry City and, if things go right on the pitch, further such gates in the immediate future.
On Tuesday night, I watched – 97th time and still counting – B.J, Banda’s goal that clinched Harps their latest promotion in that memorable night in Ballybofey four months ago and that potential just poured down from the packed terraces.
Ollie Horgan has acquired wisely in the close season and the capture of Barry Molloy, Sean Houston and Ryan McConnell in particular represent shrewd business, adding the necessary quality that will be urgently needed if Harps are to make any sort of impression in Premier ranks. The bulk of the squad that got them there has also been put in place to mount a challenge.
A challenge for survival? That’s probably the reality of the situation given the strength of the other sides in the top division.
Harps first outing in 1996-97 was, ironically, a home game with Derry, one they lost by the only goal with the Candystripes going on to claim the title that season.
But survive Harps did and it was only at the end of the 2000/02 campaign that they slid back down to the graveyard division.
A stay of such duration would be viewed as a huge success this time out but manager Horgan and his team won’t want to be merely known as survivors as they start into a new season knowing that the Premier League pundits will be predicting the quickest of drops through the trapdoor.
Meanwhile, I’ve a 20 euro bet on with Victor Fisher that Harps will get at least a point from their opening four games. I’m hoping to collect my winnings at his office in the Sandwich Company on Letterkenny’s Main Street – preferably on Saturday morning!
POSITIVE SIGNS FOR DONEGAL
When Donegal recorded successive National League victories over Down and Cork, there was a sense that neither opponent had really stretched Rory Gallagher’s team to any significant degree and very little could be read into those opening two victories at least as regards future prospects.
Last Sunday Mayo arrived in Ballybofey with zero points on the board and with history reminding them that they could well be still minus a win having never previously registered a league victory over their hosts in Donegal.
And so it proved but this was a Mayo team that looked up for it right from the start and were never short of the spirit that we’ve come to expect from the Westerners over the past few seasons.
I only saw the highlights of the game but judging by them and the reports on the fixture, Mayo were never out of it and indeed could have gone on to win it.
Which makes the Donegal display all the more impressive and the start they have made to their N.L. campaign looking far from a fluke irrespective of the quality of the opposition in those first two matches.
Here was solid fare put in front of them but they responded with the tenacity and discipline that marked many a Jim McGuinness managed side.
Some magnificent points from Ryan McHugh and Odhran MacNiallais underlined their scoring potential but the pick of the bunch had to be that expertly worked goal finished off neatly by Leo McLoone after an interchange of passes that split the visiting back line wide open.
Next stop, Austin Stack Park in Tralee next Sunday where, with Kerry recording their first win of the campaign – a comprehensive dismantling of Down by sixteen points and welcoming back the ‘Gooch’ Cooper and Kieran Donaghy into the ranks – we could be in for a stirring contest.
If you can’t get there, it’s ‘live’ on TG4 for what, on the day that’s in it, could be the mother of all battles.
ANOTHER STEP TO GLORY
If plans were perfect, the scenario for Letterkenny Rovers would work out exactly like this. A trip to Dublin for a semi-final meeting with Firhouse Clover in the grounds of Tallaght I.T. and then another trek to the capital to the more illustrious setting of the Aviva Stadium and a true date with destiny.
But Carlsberg, as far as I know, don’t do F.A.I. Intermediate Cup ties and it may be that a much longer journey awaits Eamon McConigley’s men before they can even contemplate a place in the final of a competition second only to the F.A.I. Cup in terms of prestige.
While Rovers were impressively dispensing of Killester United in their quarter-final at Leckview on Sunday, Firhouse and Ringmahon were playing out a 1-1 draw in Tallaght and now face a replay in Cork on March 12th.
But however, that one pans out, Rovers booked their semi-final spot on merit and can with some measure of confidence look ahead to causing either opponent enough problems, even away from home.
By all accounts, Rovers were comfortable up until the closing ten minutes when Killester grabbed a goal back and nerves began to fray the edge of their performance. They held out, however, even against strong claims for a penalty from the visitors, and can now look ahead to that trip to Dublin or Cork later in the month.
I’m not a betting man but…..
ENGLAND FULL-BACK VOTES WITH HIS FEET
Due to political pressure, this column found itself far removed from any live sport over the weekend or indeed even the televised brand. Hence, there was a no-show at Leckview Park to watch Letterkenny Rovers earn a place in the semi-finals of the F.A.I. Intermediate Cup and a similar absence from MacCumhaill Park where Donegal were disposing of Mayo (to be honest, I had pencilled in the Rovers game as the one to go along to on Sunday afternoon) but, like I say, the General Election kept me confined to the Aura Leisure Centre where sport was off the agenda and the Count was very much on.
Obviously first preferences would have been the soccer or the Gaelic but a living has to be made and even the rugby clash between Ireland and England at Twickenham on Saturday had to take a hammering at the polls.
I did manage to catch some of the latter and this appeared far from Ireland’s worst performance of the season. Two tries disallowed – one of those decisions seemingly very suspect – could have swung the match in Ireland’s favour and then there was the incident involving England full-back Mike Brown who, somehow, has escaped a citing after his attempts to chip away at Conor Murray’s face using his boot in a ruck. Murray could have lost an eye but Brown didn’t even lose his place on the pitch.
Had Robbie Henson managed to ground the ball in the corner after an inspiring second half move, things could have turned out differently but now we have an Ireland team sitting second from bottom in the Six Nations table with a solitary point on the board.
Two home games against Italy and Scotland provide them with the opportunity to climb out of that position and ease the pressure on coach Schmidt who is, despite the poor campaign to date results wise, still the man to guide us to greater things even against the backdrop of the likes of George Hook sharpening the knives and demanding change.
Just like the country did at the weekend.
And now some more figures from the counts – Mark English registering a time of 1.51.57 to claim the 800 metres title at the National Indoor Championships in Athlone and Brendan Boyce ghosting home in a time of 20:17:81to win the 5,000 m walk at the same event. And another gain for Tir Chonaill A.C. competitor Conal Mahon who claimed a bronze in the triple jump with a leap of 13.72. And Letterkenny IT student, Simon Archer, going close to a pole topping performance before having to settle for third in the high jump.
Count them all in for continued success both nationally and internationally.
Okay, hands up how many of you golfers out there have sent your drive wayward and cursed yourself in the process? Aye, that’s all of you then.
Just like Shane Lowry who sent his drive into the water at the 15th during the Honda Classic in Florida and was picked up loud and clear by the camera microphones berating himself with “ah, you f……idiot” (only there were no dots behind his ‘f’).
It prompted an immediate apology from the commentator but the Offaly man was largely unrepentant. “So I said a bad word…shoot me!,” he tweeted afterwards.
No doubt some of the committee blazers at the course were horrified by his reaction.
But many of the rest of us would simply regard it as true blue passion losing, as it should be allowed to do occasionally, the run of itself.
AND DOWN HE GOES!
The last time I saw a dive such as that engineered by Louis van Gaal on Sunday at Old Trafford, Ashley Young was playing.
Three wins on the trot, including that 3-2 victory over the Gunners, may have helped save his Manchester United career but it’s likely that backward collapse onto the touchline turf may have finally won him over where it really matters – to the fans.
The TMS column in the London Times reported on Monday that the ‘Irish Post’ newspaper had carried a story detailing how the they couldn’t find the right grass in Ireland to resurface Croke Park and consequently had to import it from Lincolnshire in England.
“It’s not the first time the words English and sods have been heard in Dublin but for once it’s a compliment,” the Times columnist remarked.Tags: