Is the First Division a race for second place?

If the bookmakers are to be believed - and they have a habit of getting it right - Finn Harps couldn’t have had a tougher start to the Airtricity League First Division.

If the bookmakers are to be believed - and they have a habit of getting it right - Finn Harps couldn’t have had a tougher start to the Airtricity League First Division.

Limerick FC really ought to have got promoted last term and those who follow the Shannonsiders pointed the finger at the Ballybofey club for fielding a suspended player against Monaghan United in a 0-0 draw in September. That result was overturned and as a consequence, Roddy Collins’ side were awarded a 3-0 victory and the two extra points they obtained enabled them to leapfrog Limerick and snaeak into the top-flight.

At 1/6 odds, Pat Scully’s team are almost unbackable and the competitiveness of the second tier seems a little laxed compared to last year with Shelbourne, Cork City and Monaghan now in the Premier Division. Waterford United and Longford Town are perceived to be the main protagonists in the promotion chase, while the likes of Harps, Mervue United and Athlone Town are anticipated to fight it out in the middle regions of the table, while Wexford Youths and the newly-formed SG Galway are likely to fight for the scraps.

A busy winter for Peter Hutton and Felix Healy saw the revolving door in operation. This arrived against a backdrop of uncertainty as the club successfully, with thanks to the supportive public of the north-west and Donegal County Council, scraped up €47,000 to keep the club in existence.

Because of that and the managerial merry go-round in Ballybofey, James Gallagher was relieved of his duties in April, made for a forgettable season where the club slumped to the worst finish since joining the League of Ireland in 1969.

Therefore this season is likely to be one of consolidation. The management have frequently spoke of their need to operate in what is an even stricter budget than 12 months ago.

Whereas in years gone by, Harps were guilty of reckless squandering of money, there is a more measured approach this term.

There is a direct correlation between goings on off the pitch and on it. If Harps can get bums on seats and increase the gates from last year’s scant offerings the club will have a brighter future.

The stadium move to Stranorlar is still on and with a largely locally based squad of players the bean counters will be hopeful of healthy gate receipts, which suffered last term without local derbies against the likes of Derry City or Sligo Rovers. In fact, the diverse composition of the First Division means Longford Town - exactly 100 miles away - is the closet away fixture.

Kevin McHugh is still a hugely important player for Harps, a fact emphasised as recently as last Sunday when he scored a brace in the final pre-season friendly against Buncrana Hearts.

Goalkeeper Ciaran Gallagher will have his defence marshalled in by Keith Cowan and Derry City loanee Thomas McMonagle, while full-backs James Doherty and Ciaran Coll have been two of Harps steadier performers in a turbulent time. Aaron O’Hagan will be entrused with anchoring the midfield, with Thomas McBride sitting directly in front. McHugh, Stephen O’Donnell and Blaine Curtis will be entrusted with the goalscoring responsibilities.