In his first interview since the departure of manager Ollie Horgan, Finn Harps chairman Ian Harkin discusses the new manager, the new stadium, season tickets and going professional.
With Ollie Horgan’s departure the task to find a replacement to fill his shoes must be quite a daunting one?
Absolutely, Ollie has been a huge servant to the club since November 2013 and is part of our history, he is a legend in the league, one of the most respected characters that makes our league so special. I don’t think Ollie will disappear he has too much to give, and he will always be welcome in Finn Park. The sacrifices the role requires are incredible, like in all sporting clubs when you take on the position it is so consuming, it’s very similar in many way to running your own business, the hours the stress, the impact on family life etc. We would like to thank Ollie, his wife, and family, all his backroom staff over the years and players who gave us some incredible memories.
Last week we posted the job advert and set a closing date of this Friday the 18th of November for all applications. In the first division the applicants only have to have an A Licence which opens up the pool significantly however with the premier having a compulsory requirement for a Pro Licence, the A Licence applicants would need to be able to confirm they will progress to the pro licence and will need to stand out when competing with pro licence holders. Around 200 people have qualified for a pro licence through the FAI in Ireland, some have qualified in other countries or have an equivalent in another continent. Of these pro licence holders, only single figures are based in Donegal so if it were only pro licence holders most people would have to relocate to Donegal (or driving significantly each week) to take on the job if they were to be successful.
There are 10 teams in the division, the top team gets promotion and the 4 below play off for the opportunity to play the team that finished second from bottom in the premier so there is a good chance to be in with a competitive shout at the year-end for any new manager.
As a club, contracts for players and management end with the last game of the season, this has been the way in the league for several years but slowly clubs are changing towards a more fulltime structure and contracts past 40 weeks are becoming normal, the risks in waiting until the season end are reducing for other clubs.
Two years ago, we had one of our best starts we had low player turnover, a good preseason, familiarity, and stability. This year we brought in 11 players at the start of this season, Shelbourne brought in 13, Dundalk 12, Drogheda 12, St Pats 10, Bohemians 9, Derry 8, Sligo 7, UCD 6 and Shamrock Rovers 2, so as you can see there is a lot of player turnover within the league. Retention of players is so important, the effort involved in recruitment is crazy and an inefficient but currently necessary use of time.
This year, 19 of our 25 squad members were living in Donegal, 10 of them lived in Letterkenny in housing provided by the club. It was our biggest ever budget, we trained 3 nights a week with some players who live abroad or down the country joining in once a week. The gap towards professionalism was quite narrow in terms of availability of players time but ultimately as a board we have chosen part time for this past decade, so we miss out on that additional, development, fitness and contact time.
We are at a bit of a crossroads in how we take the club forward in my view, normally when you drop down you cut back on your budget. One of the criticisms we receive as a club is that we are not developing enough players from our academy through to our first team, to do so however requires investment in strength and conditioning, monitoring, reporting on it at academy and senior level and giving them minutes on the field.
Getting back up to the premier is important, but if the peak of our ambition once there is avoid relegation each year then I would rather invest time and resources now in getting structures right so that when we do get back up that we can look upwards and compete for titles.
The next phase for the club surely is planning towards a fulltime status, how and when do you envisage that the club may be in a position to do this especially now as it has been relegated to the first division?
It has always been assumed that the new stadium is not just a facility to accommodate our existing fans but one which will interest new fans to come along, it would be the catalyst that drives revenue and in turn drives a more professional infrastructure for the development of players on a more fulltime structure. There is no guarantee that the crowds will come however, as a club even when the stadium is built it would be irresponsible of us to automatically set a budget for professionalism, assuming that the crowds would simply turn up. We can control to a degree, the ability to deliver a stadium and I am never more convinced that we will be getting diggers on site very soon.
What we can’t do as a board is commit to professional football on our own, that decision is purely down to fans and the only way they can do it is to commit to buying a season ticket or join our 500 club. Without having revenue committed we cannot rely on league position or weather to drive people’s appetite to attend, we need fans to make the upfront commitment at the beginning of the season. Last year we sold 370 adult/concession season tickets making up 87% of the total revenue from season tickets and a further 465 secondary or kids ones. To start the process of going professional we would need to be selling over 1,000 adult/concession season tickets at a minimum. In our last game of the season we had over 2,000 home fans in attendance, the fans are there we just need the commitment. If you look at other clubs in our league, Sligo, Derry, Bohs, Rovers, Pats all have made huge inroads in professional structures, they are the clubs leading the promotion of and seeing huge growth in season ticket sales.
To give our kids a chance to reach their peak ability in football, its essential that they are doing so in a professional environment, they should be doing so here in Donegal and not travelling to Derry and Sligo to avail of the opportunity. It will be the fans ultimately that will decide that for us, season tickets for 2023 are currently available on our website www.finnharps.ie for those people unable to make it to Donegal every second Friday but would like to support we would suggest support our 500 club which is also available on our website.
Likewise for any manager, physio, strength and conditioning, analyst etc looking to progress in their career they need to have the tools and contact time with players to see if they can reach their peak potential in their career, the pool size of potential applicants almost forces your hand to seriously consider making the role a full time one and even then it will only appeal to them if they have the players to work with on a daily basis, it’s a real Catch 22 solved only by the commitment to buying season tickets/500 Club.
In our licensing we have a rule of 65% of income can only be spent on playing costs, for large clubs that makes sense, it stops overspending, I believe there should be a complimentary rule which pushes clubs to focus on season tickets, the FAI and league sponsor should also assist in developing a TV marketing campaign specifically around season tickets. We don’t have TV money that we can bank on and sponsorship money without having TV is relatively small, gate receipts are so dependent on weather, the teams form etc but before the season starts there is an opportunity to push season tickets, take out that financial risk for clubs and allow them build structures, the habit that generally happens is that any additional monies that come in are then spent on additional player costs and not on providing the structures and support staff to build something that has long term benefits. If we take out those fluctuations in income we have a much more sustainable model with a long term focus.
I think it’s important that we are representative of Donegal, we are the only team in the league with our county on our crest, we have to work on our identity, this year 42% of our squad were from Donegal but against UCD in our second last game they had 3 players starting against our 2 from Donegal so it can’t just be tokenistic we have to be giving them game time. If we had 50% of our squad from within 100km of Ballybofey I would be happy. Knowing there are players from your town or county in the team will give us an identity and increase attendances. We have to be providing pathway for players from Donegal if we are to live up to our name as a community focused club. We will still be bringing in talent and players on loan but our core has to be on the community we serve.
Would the timing not be best to move to a professional set up when the stadium is complete?
If you want to be exceptional at anything in life you must be spending every available minute within reason looking to perfect your skill. It’s what we should be offering to us under 17s and under 19s and not just our senior team. We should have players from the under 17’s should be physically able to step up into the senior team let alone the under 19s. You could see it with the UCD team in our last game of the season. They have all been in the gym 4 days a week since they were 16. That is what we are competing against.
Professionalism within our club can at times be seen as a dirty word having tried it before and not working out, that’s why it’s essential to have our season tickets banked before we even consider it, we should not be taking the risk especially in these times, if we can’t reach that target then we wait until the stadium is built and again we will ask fans to commit before we make that step. The alternative is looking for an investor who would be willing to take that risk.
The stadium will surely be a big catalyst to enable you to afford a lot of the changes you are talking about?
The stadium is central to the future of the club in so many ways. We desperately need modern facilities to improve match night experience and indeed revenue for the club. Currently we lose a lot on the gate every time the weather is bad, and we lack many basic stadium facilities, so the move is vital to building the club up in every way. The build should be completed in 2024.
We currently spend significant monies renting facilities in Letterkenny, Ballybofey, Killygordon and Strabane each year, hopefully in phase 2 of the stadium we can build out our training facilities and for our academy. We are investigating every available source of finance for that too.
Last week I’ve looked at possible locations of where we could set up a base for a professional team and there are at least 3 if not 4 locations in Donegal that have everything we need.
This year too we signed an agreement with the ATU, we have several scholarships with the college and use of some of their facilities. The skill base that they have in the college is phenomenal and I would like to increase our cooperation for mutually beneficial outcomes.
We’ve heard about investors coming into Shelbourne, Galway, St Pat’s, Shamrock Rovers and more recently Drogheda and Cork City have spoken about actively seeking an investor, is this a route Harps are looking at?
We are not actively seeking investment, we were set up as a fan owned Co-Operative Society but we will look at each and every valid off and then present to our board and members after our own due diligence. Our physical assets apart from players are thankfully owned by a Trust in the case of Finn Park and by the Donegal County Council in the case of the new stadium so asset stripping is not possible, and these structures were set up to protect against that very thing.
If the right cultural fit comes along, respecting our community, our academy, our county, and everyone who has brought the club to this place, we will have to explore it, I would always like supporters to have some say in that new arrangement. Any investment would have to have performance targets, an initial capital amount and an option agreement to be able to buy back at a nominal cost if targets were not achieved.
It has been an eventful year, the announcement of the women’s teams, progress with the stadium and now unfortunately relegation so how have you found your first year as Chairperson of Finn Harps?
The thing that strikes you from the outset is the amount of goodwill, the amount of volunteerism within our club, it is astounding and humbling to see so many give so much of their time to the club, from match night volunteers to the ladies in the shops and the supporters club merchandise shop, to Billy selling the programs or Charlie selling the halftime tickets. Behind the scenes the fundraisers, marketing team, people on the gate, facilities team, online shop team, our designer Clare, and video production by Stevie, they are phenomenal, such a talented bunch. A big shout out to “Ois Bosh” too for organising the supporters’ buses to all the away fixtures and to our community officer Ann for all her efforts on match night and in the community. The first team management and their support staff to the board members who all put in huge shifts. Some of our board members have stated they won’t put themselves forward again at the AGM later this month, I’d like to thank them for all their efforts over the years. If anyone is a shareholder and interested in joining the board, please feel free to reach out to any board member. Our AGM will be at 6pm, on the 27th of November in Jacksons Hotel Pyramid suite, it’s open to all shareholders.
In the first week in my role, I was introduced to the Academy and the staff there and to get a “behind the scenes” look at their operations. I was last on the board over 20 years ago and back then we were talking about an academy as a concept, now we have 10 teams and 2 new women’s teams joining in 2023, they have coaches, assistant coaches, physios, strengthening and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, attack and defence coaches, goalkeeping coaches, sprint coaches all backed up by a facilities staff, and admin team based out of The Base in Stranorlar. The academy is self-funding, but it is that way because of the huge efforts of everyone involved and the dedicated academy sponsors.
Next year we will have our first two women’s teams representing the club and county, the partnership between the Inishowen League and the Donegal league and our Academy is ground-breaking nationally, it’s a huge credit to everyone involved. Working with the local leagues to deliver a partnership between the leagues and a senior team is the first time it has been done this way in Ireland. It would be great to develop and work with our local leagues on the schoolboy and men’s leagues too in the years ahead, we want to be representative of our county from grassroots right up, inclusive to everyone in our county and neighbouring region. Trials have been held and the teams are currently looking for commercial sponsors to help them too, become self-sufficient and represent our county in the national leagues building toward a senior women’s team in a few years’ time. Anyone business who may be interested please feel free to contact our Academy office for more information.
The stadium project has taken huge leaps during the year, Paul McLoone and his team have put in huge efforts throughout the year, it’s a thankless task, a frustrating minefield of compliance material, surveys, reviews, legal documents, forecasts, campaigning, enough to drive most to give up but we are now on the cusp of breaking ground once again and we would not be here without their efforts.
When you volunteer for any club, be it sporting or otherwise, it can be all consuming, partners, kids, extended family see an awful lot less of you, a huge thanks to them too for being so supportive. Going forward we need to look too at having more full-time roles in our club, speaking with another Chairperson this week he said this is 10 times more stressful than running your own business, as Chair we don’t even have a vote, just a casting vote, in running your own business you set the direction and make the decisions this is a completely different challenge, but rewarding in so many ways. Plenty to learn from this year and as they say you only learn from your mistakes, so I can learn from them and push on next year.
How did you yourself get involved in the club, any regrets now?
To get onto the board you have to be a shareholder and get nominated by two other shareholders. I was previously on the board over 20 years ago as assistant treasurer so I can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting into. As a kid growing up my dad was on the board for over 20 years and even had two interim periods as first team manager. By the age of 10, I had visited every league of Ireland ground. From a football perspective I captained my school team but didn’t really progress past junior football with Cappry Rovers and I packed that in early and joined the board there for a few years before joining Harps board. This year has been full on, I’ve spent more time on the club than on my own business which isn’t sustainable, but I’ve learnt a lot this year and hopefully we can increase revenues to be able to implement more fulltime supports off the field to assist in the running of the club going forward, so no regrets.
So what are your hopes for 2023 and you mentioned a strategic plan out to 2027?
The most important thing right now is to focus on our culture, for me that has to be excellence in everything we do, we need to be somewhere people love to come because we treat them well. We need to over deliver on fan experience and make people want to travel to our stadium and return again with their friends next time.
We need to provide all boys and girls in Donegal and surrounding areas the opportunity to be able to reach their peak in their abilities.
It starts with our people whether by backing us via season tickets or the 500 Club or by getting involved as volunteers or even joining the board and building a sustainable model.
The potential for the club is huge, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t, the ambition for our new stadium, the academy and women’s teams and serving the Donegal community with the ultimate aim of winning trophies and getting European nights back to Ballybofey, that’s the goal.
If you don’t visualise, you will never get there, it’s time to be ambitious again. Up the Harps!