There have been sweeping changes at Finn Harps since the departure of former manager Ollie Horgan.
The Ballybofey side begin their new league campaign against Galway United this Friday night at Finn Park with a new manager, a new-look team and a new approach.
Many have been surprised by the number of changes at the club including a four year deal offered to manager Dave Rogers.
But in this short interview, club chairman Ian Harkin explains the club’s fresh new approach which he said aims to put them on a steady footing in all departments, both on and off the pitch, going forward.
The preseason looks to have been a very positive period for the club, players signing 2-year contracts, the manager on a 4-year deal has stood out, how can the club afford this?
This season at Harps we have had to do a virtual complete rebuild of our squad and management team. Being in the first division, having a mammoth travel bill this year and with a stadium build about to start we decided to take stock of where we are, look at our responsibilities with the stadium and set out a new strategic path too on the playing side.
Rather than looking short term, we want to put players welfare further up the agenda, develop players, educate players, provide them with the environment to grow and thrive, develop a pathway and for us as a club to create an income stream from all that work and investment of time. 64% of our squad this year will be from the Northwest, developing our own is key but we will always need extra from outside to supplement that, that’s up from 36% last season, a literal complete reversal of focus.
We as a board decided to cut our player and management budget in half that is despite having a full-time management team, we have been able to do this by lowering our average age of player which this year will be 21.7, the League average is 22.8 and the premier is 23.6 for perspective. Whilst we have a younger squad we will still be aiming to win every game and return to the Premier at the earliest opportunity. Giving out 2-year contracts is key to this, giving players stability, telling then you believe in them, the same goes for the management team, giving Dave a 4-year contract is a key message to him and his backroom staff, it doesn’t cost us anything extra on a weekly basis but is a massive statement of intent, we are starting from scratch and this will take time.
With playing costs cut we will be using the money increasing training from 3 times a week to 6+ times a week, we will implement new technology (GPS Apps etc) to track player development and develop player pathways from our academy. We also are providing food pre and post training. Our training centre costs are way up as to is our travel bill in the first division. With our new stadium about to start work we must look to appoint new fulltime administrative staff and we will be opening an office in The Base Stranorlar whilst/until our own offices are being built at the new stadium. The club revenue is growing on average 20% per annum, its important to build structures off the pitch too, the workload is simply too much to have all roles as volunteer based.
This year is a new start, we are building structures and have a strategic plan, to do this we need our fans help more than ever. Our 500 club numbers are at record levels as are our season tickets (now topping 800), for people living in London, Dublin or further afield the 500 club offers a great way to remain connected to the club, as we build out our playing strategy and stadium more than ever that help is appreciated.
Right across the league clubs are announcing record season ticket sales with Harps now at over 800, what do you put that down to?
Interest in the league has been growing this past number of years, people want that live experience and some have become disenchanted with the way football is going at the top end of the market. Values and cultural identity are so important in any brand and some of that is being lost in the big UK based clubs. Community is so important to us, in the coming weeks we will be hiring a new fulltime Football community officer which is part sponsored by Healthy Ireland. We already have schools programmes and we will be looking at developing on the success of that to different age groups and different elements within our community.
Damien Duff was speaking this week about the need for investment in Shelbourne to be able to compete, is this something that the club is looking at?
Our club was created as a Co-Operative in 1997, it was done at that time to protect the club, each shareholder in our club no matter how many shares only has one vote, there is something personally that I love about being fan owned and community focused, to date in the past 20+ years of the Co-Operative I’m not aware of any investor being pitched to members nor as a board are we actively seeking an investor.
What’s the latest on the new stadium?
The FAI has now submitted all responses to the Department of Sport and any queries that have been sent to us have all been answered. A new minister was appointed in January and our project is ready to go so we would be hopeful of getting the green light this spring.
We have recently been approved for sports tax exemption under Section 847A of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 for the development of our new stadium meaning anyone donating over €250 and under €1m can receive tax relief at their marginal rate of tax on their donation. To complete the first stage of our stadium we need to raise €700k, some of this has already begun and a number of other activities are planned this year.
With Vera Pauw visiting Letterkenny this weekend and the Irish team heading off to Australia the women’s game really seems to be on a high, Finn Harps will be launching their very own women’s team this year, tell us about how that is progressing?
The absolute minimum it costs to run a single team in the league of Ireland is €20,000 per annum, that is the very basics of training pitch rental, buses, food and some other travel related costs. Starting from scratch with two new teams this year is a mammoth task. We now have our squads formed and management teams in place, we will have a celebratory program specifically developed for the girls with words from Vera and some of the Irish squad, all funds raised will go towards their budget, player sponsorships, registrations fees and sponsorships will hopefully make up the shortfall, unlike the boys academy no support is received from UEFA for girls. Anyone interested in sponsoring is asked to contact firstname.lastname@example.org
What’s next for the club, you have the fulltime management, almost a fulltime squad, what are the next goals for the club?
This year we will be paying over €60,000 renting facilities in Letterkenny, Killygordon, Strabane, Buncrana and Ballybofey, our timetable is fixed around availability of other clubs, other community centres and we don’t really have a consistent base. Having visited the very impressive facility in Convoy earlier this year owned by the county GAA we really need to have aspirations to have our own base. Our original plans for Stranorlar included this for that site but because we needed to cut our cloth accordingly, we have had to put that on the back burner when we applied for the Large-Scale Infrastructure Funding. The impact for that is that Academy parents are having to assist us in renting facilities, it’s a huge cost to their kids in the academy. All monies raise by the Academy stays in the Academy and the vast majority of that money is spent on facilities and logistical support. Our academy is phenomenal, it would be regarded as being in the top 5 in the country and that is all down to the vision of James Rodgers and John Campbell initially and the huge efforts of our own Kevin McHugh in recent years. Kevin has been planning and working on this for a number years and hopefully we can start to progress funding for this in the very near future.
Another goal I would like to address is to build bridges with our local leagues, we have a good relationship almost all clubs and hopefully they see the work that we are doing with the senior club and addressing the pathway for Academy players. We would welcome sitting down with them with player welfare, development, education and pathway being core topics. Communication and buy in is critical, it is up to us to walk the talk after we sit down, when we have our facilities we would hope to develop not just players but be a centre for coach development for all clubs in our county. Our new Football Community Officer will be key in helping us deliver this.