Managerial changes and money problems - it’s all in a season at Harps

Diarmaid Doherty

Reporter:

Diarmaid Doherty

Not for the first time in recent seasons, some of the major talking points involving Finn Harps in 2011 centred on matters off the park rather than on it.

Not for the first time in recent seasons, some of the major talking points involving Finn Harps in 2011 centred on matters off the park rather than on it.

In fact the campaign was long finished when Harps found themselves firmly in the spotlight - and once again at the centre of some controversy.

In fairness to Harps - they could be considered the innocent party in the matter. Councillors on Donegal County Council had voted to donate 20,000 euro in funding to Finn Harps as part of efforts to raise the 48,000 euro Harps needed to wipe out its debts from the 2011 season.

The Harps board had appealed for support from across the North West and launched a major fundraising drive amid concerns that if they failed to raise the 48,000 euro, they would not be able to apply for a licence for the 2012 season.

And while a host of fundraising efforts got underway - Donegal Co. Council voted to back Harps to the tune of 20,000 - a decision that prompted much criticism and debate on Highland Radio and in the pages of the local papers.

Whatever about the rights and wrongs of the council’s financial support for Harps - the funding meant that Harps’ status in the League of Ireland would be secured for at least another season.

And Felix Healy and Peter Hutton could continue with their preparations for the new campaign, safe in the knowledge that a new licence will be winging it’s way to Finn Park in the coming weeks.

Healy and Hutton’s arrival at Finn Park was perhaps the big talking point of 2011. The Derry duo took over from James Gallagher and his assistant, Anthony Gorman back in May. By the time of their arrival as Director of Football and Player Manager, Finn Harps had failed to win a single one of their opening nine games of the season.

Healy was returning to the club he led to a First Division title in 2004 and in his programme notes ahead of his first game in charge at home to Wexford Youths, he said he was relishing his new challenge. The change in management however, didn’t result in an immediate turn-around in fortunes. Harps lost that game against Wexford 1-0, and then lost 2-1 away to Mervue United and 1-0 at high-flying Limerick.

By the time Athlone Town visited Finn Park on the last weekend in May - Harps had played eleven league games, failed to win any of them - and were sitting bottom of the First Division table with just 3 points from a possible 33.

Thankfully, the first victory arrived against Athlone Town courtesy of a Kevin McHugh goal. And while they were to lose their next game - at promotion-chasing Monaghan United, Harps then won two on the bounce against Waterford United and Salthill Devon. McHugh was among the goals again, scoring in the 1-0 win over Waterford and a brilliant hat-trick in the 4-0 demolition of Salthill.

Harps were off the bottom of the table and while they were to lose after a replay in the FAI Cup third round against Longford Town, things were very definitely looking on the up.

Healy and Hutton’s no-nonsence approach appeared to be paying dividends. They certainly weren’t afraid to make changes when players weren’t producing the goods. Indeed on a number of occasions when performances weren’t up to scratch, Felix Healy didn’t hold back on his criticism of players’ attidudes and mentality.

The addition of Blaine Curtis to the front line in June was another major plus factor. Curtis went on to enjoy a terrific campaign and was deservedly named the club’s young player of the year at the end of the season. Stephen O’Donnell was among Healy’s new signings and even though his season was once again hampered by injury, he will surely have a major role to play in 2012.

There were other new arrivals as well including JP Gallagher the former Linfield defender, Barry O’Mahony, Gary Curran and Kevin Devenney. Young Martin Redmond from Dungloe enjoyed a decent run in defence, playing at right back for much of the latter end of the season.

And while Harps were unfortunate to lose Conor O’Grady to injury in late April, his replacement in the centre of midfield, Aaron McElwee was hugely impressive, until he took up a scholarship in the States late on in the season.

As Harps entered the final third of their fixtures programme - they had moved on to a much more respectable 18 points from their 20 games. They were still in the bottom three but performances for the most part, had shown a marked improvement. Healy though, insisted his players were playing for a place in the squad for next season and he challenged them to prove their worth in the closing run of games.

Harps would go six games without defeat before losing away to Cork City at the end of September. They finished off their season with four games in October - two of them at home. The ongoing financial problems which weren’t helped by a notable drop in attendances at home fixtures saw the club take the unusual decision not to produce match programmes for those two final home matches against Longford Town and Wexford Youths.

There was also an unfortunate spat between Felix Healy and Marc Brolly over the latter’s non-appearance in the final two games at Shelbourne and Mervue United. Brolly would sign for Dungannon Swifts in December - along with left back JP Gallagher.

And so at the end of another difficult and disappointing season, Harps finished 9th in the 11 team First Division. Ronnie Whelan was special guest at the club’s end of year presentation night in December at which Keith Cowan was named player of the year.

By the end of the year, the fixtures for the 2012 season were confirmed - but interestingly, the fixtures applied to the Premier Division only. The Airtricity League has received applications from prospective new clubs to gain entry to the First Division. The First Division fixtures will be published when the licensing process is complete on February 12th.

The new season is due to get underway a month later and after three or four seasons spent trying to battle their way out of the bottom end of Division One, here’s hoping the 2012 season will bring at least some reason to cheer for those long suffering Harps supporters.