New Finn Harps captain Kevin McHugh believes his side are facing the dark horses of the First Division on opening night when Limerick FC come to town.
Pat Scully has been building a strong squad capable of challenging at the top end of the table but McHugh, in the second season of his second spell in Ballybofey, is of the opinion Harps are also facing in the right direction.
“I would definitely say that we are 100 per cent stronger this year compared to last year both in terms of experience and personnel,” he said.
“I just feel we are definitely stronger as a group and that’s a reason to be optimistic. Maybe we are not as strong as some of the other teams in the division but I am happy with the improvement.
“Personally I know I feel so much fitter this season compared to last, when it took me to halfway through to get into it properly. Everyone got through a hard pre-season well.
“For me Limerick are the team to watch. They were knocking at the door last season and they are the type of good team that you’re up against.
“We’re going to be taking it one game at a time and we don’t want to get carried away, but facing Limerick on Friday will give us a good indication as to how far we have come. They are a top two, even a top one, team.”
There is no secret that the limitations of the budget means Harps have to keep things tight and James Gallagher has steadily been building a young, largely locally-based squad around a few more experienced figures.
Conor O’Grady’s arrival from Sligo Rovers will add a learned influence in midfield, while Paddy McLaughlin has re-signed for the club he earned promotion with in 2007 and is expected to join the young but mature Packie Mailey at the back. And up front, no player has scored more goals in this league than McHugh.
This term, the 31-year-old who made his Harps debut away back in 1998, will have the extra responsibility of the captaincy.
“It’s something I relish doing,” McHugh added. “We still need the likes of Packie and Paddy leading from the back as well as Conor in midfield. We have good people and someone like Conor, who has great experience, can do things so simple and he can rub off on people. You can’t buy that.”
Harps’ followers are reasonably optimistic after showing patience to see their youngsters develop and would like to see the club challenging at the top end of the table, but for a club who have seen plenty of false dawns, there might be another season to wait before the Ballybofey club carry significant hopes. Last season, only two clubs – Limerick and Mervue United - came to Finn Park and won, but Harps’ away form was patchy at best although an encouraging finish has provided another reason to look back for inspiration when looking forward.
“We finished last season pretty well and we would like to start this season the same way we finished last,” McHugh said. “Since then we have added well to the squad and have put in six weeks of mad training so we can’t wait to get a run of games and getting back into the run of things. Hopefully we can get a good start and have a good season.”