If the river had meandered a little differently Shaun Kelly would’ve made countless competitive appearances at Finn Park.
On Saturday night, though, the Killybegs native will line out at the Navenny Street venue for the first time as a League of Ireland player in the colours of Limerick FC. Prior to Harps kicking off the 2008 campaign in the Premier League under Paul Hegarty, Kelly had trained with the Ballybofey club and played a cameo role in a pre-season fixture against Shelbourne.
At the time, Finn Park was an excitable place, talk of full-time football and Premier Division stability. An excellent second half to the previous term had seen Hegarty’s team conclude in electric fashion, coming within a whisker of winning the championship, only to be pipped by Cobh Ramblers before defeating Waterford United 6-3 over two legs of a promotion-relegation play-off.
Kelly had spent the best part of the previous three years at Heart of Midlothian. He might be ﬁve months younger than his former teammate at home at St Catherine’s Seamus Coleman, but the now Everton midﬁelder aspired to follow in his footsteps. Kelly left home for Hearts in 2005 along with Mark Forker from Burtonport, a man he will run into on Saturday, and Letterkenny’s Lorcan Keeney, while Coleman grafted on at Emerald Park.
In all, Kelly, now 22, would narrowly miss out competitively on making the ﬁrst team at Tynecastle, but he did feature on the bench for an Edinburgh derby against Hibernian in 2007 before tearing ligaments and stunting progress whilst training with the ﬁrst-team squad in Germany. Unfortunately, that’s something he can share with Coleman this week.
“I have never played at Finn Park competitively,” Kelly says. “I played there for a Kennedy Cup team as a teenager and also played for Harps for 10 minutes or so in a pre-season friendly. Paul Hegarty had asked me to come on loan. At the time I was delighted to get the chance and was about to put pen to paper.
“But the day before I did, a right-back at Hearts got injured and they refused to let the deal go ahead. They called me back and it was unlucky.
“I still keep in touch with Paul. It was a pity. Hearts were eager for the younger players to go out on loan and gain some experience in first team football rather than playing youth team football.”
Having returned to Scotland, Kelly performed competently for Hearts reserves, but trouble was brooding under the surface. Russian-Lithuanian businessman and banker Vladimir Romanov took over as the major shareholder of the club.
Whilst promising, among other things, to win the Champions League, Romanov introduced a number of Lithuanians to his academy, basically freezing out those who had been there already.
Kelly returned to Ireland and was snapped up by Dundalk, playing European football under Sean Connor. When Connor took over at Galway United, he made a move for his former full-back. This season, Galway hit financial meltdown and were forced to lay-off the majority of their playing staff in a desperate bid to reduce costs.
“We were going downhill at Galway,” Kelly says. “They had to get rid of all their pros. There are only young lads in there now from the Galway area on amateur terms so it’s hard for them. I really hope they confidence doesn’t get too much of a bashing, especially after losing 8-0 in their derby against Sligo.
“I had a good relationship with Sean Connor and he is still a good manager. It’s unfortunate he just doesn’t have the resources to back up his plans. It’s a hard job and nobody else can do it any differently. He’s doing the best he can.
“When you’re a professional you are counting on what you earn and we were full-time more or less, training or playing four or five days a week. Things were getting cut back and we went six or seven weeks without pay. I had made my mind up I had to leave.”
With his career at a crossroads, Kelly prepared to go on the move again. A call came from Pat Scully, the Limerick manager, and although initially unwilling to take the plunge to Division One, Kelly listened to what the plans were on the banks of the rover Shannon.
“I was always going to be leaving Galway and when I got the phonecall from Limerick I thought about it. Pat had seen me playing for Dundalk and wondering whether I was interested.
“At first, I didn’t want to drop to the First Division but when I went down and met them and seen the place and heard their plans I wanted to be there. They are an up and coming club and everything they do is just first class. As a player, you are allowed the use of any gym in the city and I cannot speak highly enough of Limerick.
“From top to bottom they are a fine club. You can see that from the facilities and the new signings. With Joe Gamble, Denis Behan and Rory Gaffney from Mervue they are definitely bringing in the right sort of players to go somewhere. They’re one to look out for in the future. They have build a new stadium that will be opened next year and we’d love to be opening it with as a Premier Division club.”
Kelly is in line to make his second start for his new employers. Living in Limerick city centre he is still finding his way around in both his personal and professional life. Last weekend he made a first start in the 2-1 win away to Waterford at the RSC.
That means Limerick make the long journey up the west coast in fourth place, seven adrift of league leaders Shelbourne and just three off Cork City and Monaghan United. With the Premier Division getting a little flabbier next term, extending from 10 teams to 12, promotion is an achievable goal. Third place will guarantee a play-off against the side who finish bottom of the top-flight. Galway might be beckoning again soon.
“That could be on the cards,” Kelly adds. “I would love to see Galway turn it around as I have a lot of friends there. We want to get outright promotion through a top two finish but if that doesn’t happen we will have to beat who we can. We have a good chance but Monaghan, Cork and especially Shelbourne can say the same.”
While Limerick possess notions of upperosity, Harps’ current stance seeks only stability and under Peter Hutton and Felix Healy there has been a notable improvement. Last Saturday’s 2-0 win over Mervue United increased the level of optimism around the Twin Towns.
“As a Donegal man I would always want to see Finn Harps doing well,” Kelly says. “When I was in Scotland for three-and-a-half years I was a bit out of touch with the League of Ireland but now since I’m home, they’re the first result I look for. Mark Forker is a good friend of mine as is Gary Curran, who just signed for Harps. We lived together in Galway until recently.
“It’ll be good to see the lads but when the whistle goes I’ll be gunning to try and get three points for Limerick. There will be a few over from Killybegs to see how I get on I’m sure. And although they’ll want me to do well they’ll prefer if Harps get the points! It should be good and it’s nice to finally get the chance to play in Donegal in a League of Ireland fixture.”