Michael Funston has helped Finn Harps to two promotions from the First Division of the League of Ireland in his time and the midfielder has ideas on helping a similar push this season.
At 27, Funston is one of the senior members in Peter Hutton’s squad, far off the status when he, Chrissy Breen and Shaun McGowan were the baby-faced members of the Harps squad that won the First Division championship in 2004.
Funston left Harps in 2010, after also winning promotion in 2007, and began playing his football in the Irish League with Dungannon Swifts. Last June, though, he was about to return to Donegal to play with his local Bonagee United club.
Now employed in Intellectual Disability Service as a carer based in Raphoe, working 12-hour shifts wasn’t something Funston could juggle whilst playing football across the border.
“Sometimes you don’t appreciate football and just reckon there’s always going to be another season,” he said this week.
“When you’re paying your own bills money is hard to come by. But I got the chance to come back from Dungannon, because with my work commitments, it mightn’t have worked out in the Irish League.
“I just love playing football and was about to re-sign for Bonagee United in the Ulster Senior League on a Thursday in June.
“As it turned out, I got talking to Peter Hutton and signed with Harps again the day afterwards. I actually love training so if there’s ever a night I’m on shift work and can’t make training Peter knows he cant trust me in that I’ve been at the gym beforehand.
I” thought the chance might’ve passed me but in football you never know. A phonecall changed a lot.”
Funston went over on an ankle in Lisseywollen, the home of Athlone Town FC, last July but from the sidelines and from his meetings with his new manager, could see the solid foundation being built at the club. Harps, after a dittery opening, strung a 10-match unbeaten run together.
“We’ve a good buzz in the camp and that comes from the young players,” Funston said. “We deserved the decent run because we worked hard. I came in under Peter Hutton and everything was very positive and we shook off the notion that we were merely in the First Division to make up the numbers.”
Harps build up over the winter months, both in the gym privately and on the squad sheet collectively.
Aside the first team in the Airtricity League of Ireland First Division, there is a squad in the Dr Tony O’Neil U-19 Elite Premier Division and the also for the upcoming Ulster Senior League.
At the RSC last Friday night, Hutton’s team opened their league campaign against Waterford United. Harps left with a 1-1 draw after Sean McCarron, in the last minute of the 90, levelled following an opening goal from Ben Ryan. It was certainly a game of two halves.
“We started very nervously and Waterford put the ball in behind us and tried to squeeze us,” Funston said of the RSC. “It caused us a little bit of bother. We conceded one and were probably lucky not to concede a second. It was a bit frantic, real one hundred miles an hour stuff, and was rushed.
“But once we got in and regrouped we decided that there’s nothing in this league to be afraid of. Waterford are a team that made it to the promotion play-offs last season and are one of the favourites for the league. The draw, in the end, was probably a fair result. It really good point.”
In fact, rather peculiarly, the scheduling of fixtures Harps have been handed could be construed as playing the toughest side in the league right down to the weakest in order - Waterford, Cobh Ramblers, Longford Town, Mervue United, Wexford Youths, Athlone Town and SD Galway.
Funston feels Harps will know the lie of the land in the division sooner rather than later.
“Our first four or five matches, we were saying, will really show us who we’re up against,” he said. “It’s a good thing to maybe get a chance at those other teams before they get into their momentum but they can say the same about us of course.”
Harps are a club that have suffered a false dawn or two down the years but when the prognosis of the club is positive, and that’s the case, there will be an air of expectancy as Cobh Ramblers become the first visitors to Finn Park this season.
The Cork club have been out of the league since they failed to acquire a license in 2009, two years after they pipped Harps to the First Division championship on the last day of the season.
However, they certainly hit the ground running last weekend on their return to senior status, hammering Wexford 5-0.
“Cobh Ramblers have the potential to be a great side in this division,” Funston said. “Since they’ve been out of this league and in the A Championship, they’ve brought a good nucleus of a team through. And in 2007 they beat us to the championship.
“They’ve a good local based team in the Cork area, maybe a bit like ourselves in the north-west. The First Division has become that, based around localities, barring maybe Waterford, who have a slightly bigger pull geographically.”
Funston is noncommittal in regards how far up the table Harps can compete but believes an honest and workmanlike effort will enable to side to be among the frontrunners.
“There’s no reason we can’t push on and compete,” he said. I’m not going to stand here and predict we’re going to win the league.
“We don’t have the most experienced team but we’ve a strong squad and can change without diluting the team. With the three teams there’s opportunity for everyone to play football and from a club perspective Harps are trying to move in the right direction.
For me, I want to playing football on a Friday night or a Saturday morning and it’s great to be doing it with the senior side in Donegal.”