Harps must keep head above water

And so another bumpy season in the history of Finn Harps has come to an end and again there are more questions than answers.

And so another bumpy season in the history of Finn Harps has come to an end and again there are more questions than answers.

On the pitch the Ballybofey club slumped to their worst ever finish, third from bottom in the Airtricity League First Division, while off of it Harps are at an extremely fragile time in their existence.

With roughly €50,000 required between now and then end of the calendar year to appease the footballing arrears and the actual size of the debt approximately 10 times that, the level of concern is understandable.

An Irish football website stated the average crowd at Finn Park this season was 433 and although we’re continually told these are tight times economically, it should not be a major consideration for people paying at the turnstiles.

If the fare on display is acceptable Harps have proven before they are capable of getting a snowballing support. There has been a knock-on effect from a couple of years back when a number of the club’s inner circle of supporters turned their back and many have not since returned.

Those who remain of the Harps support began the campaign with reasonably optimistic expectations. Promotion was considered a bridge too far, as was the sanctuary of third-place and the play-off spot that went with it but Harps would’ve aimed for anything as high as fifth place.

There was a lot of talk about building a firm foundation. After almost two years of James Gallagher’s tenure there was an expectancy level for the first time. Those who attended games on Navenny Street had been understandable of the young manager’s predicament before then as he tried to forge a team together, many of them not out of their teens.

After Harps had blown almost €1 million in a vain attempt to keep in the top flight in 2008 Gallagher had to pick up the pieces work with spare change as the club slumped to its knees.

Gallagher lamented John Grimes’s somewhat harsh decision to produce a straight red for Mark Forker against Limerick in the opening fixture of the campaign, a game that finished 2-2. A fortnight later, Harps, as they had against Limerick, twice squandered leads and lost Tommy Bonner to a red card against Monaghan in another 2-2 draw.

Gallagher’s Harps never really recovered from those two set-backs and prior to the seventh outing of the season, by which stage Harps had not yet won in the league, the writing was on the wall. Gallagher’s fate was sealed before Longford Town rolled into town in late April.

A win even then wouldn’t have saved him and three points from 21 was a poor return. It was, though, a disappointing episode for a young man who was catapulted too fast to draw breath having stepped in as first-team manager in 2009, which was before his 30th birthday. As Gallagher quit playing he spoke about the possibilities of dipping his toes into coaching. Little did he know he’d be managing a senior club within six months.

Kevin McHugh stepped in as caretaker manager for one match, a 1-0 loss at Shelbourne, before Peter Hutton was taken in as manager working under director of football Felix Healy. The Derry pair spoke from day one about the need to avoid papering the cracks but as they watched Wexford Youths win at Finn Park in early May in their first game the size of the task on their hands was a little flabbier than they might’ve previously anticipated.

“A lot of the players are learning the game and at the minute they are learning a lot of harsh lessons,” Healy said that night. “We have to work that little bit harder but we’ve learned a great deal in the three days we’ve been here and we learned a lot tonight. There is no quick fix but we will fix it. It will not be in the next week or two, but we will fix it.”

There was, though, a league within the league. From their meetings with the top four sides - Cork City Shelbourne, Monaghan United and Limerick - Harps’ three points from a possible 36 is a scant return.

Hutton and Healy managed eight wins from their 23 fixtures, against the usual suspects in the lower half of the table - Athlone Town, Waterford United, Salthill, Wexford Youths and Mervue - and drawing just the one, which was away to Waterford in September.

There was also the embarrassment of fielding a suspended Aaron O’Hagan against Monaghan in a scoreless draw in September. The FAI awarded Monaghan the three points, which meant they finished one in front of Limerick and now have one foot in the Premier Division.

One of the priorities of Hutton and Healy was to make the team defend and attack in a unit, introducing collective responsibility where there had been more individualistic policies. Defensively Harps improved later in the season, at one stage even going four on the bounce without conceding.

However, the statistics proved that once that commendable run was broken, in late September at Turner’s Cross against Cork City, Harps were hammered 5-2 and also conceded four against Shelbourne in the penultimate outing.

The budget constraints means there is little room to manoeuvre, so with that in mind and the season dissolving into dust Hutton and Healy experimented.

“It’s no coincidence that the team’s at the bottom of the league,” Healy said. “I think it too easy a lot of the times for players to turn up and accept and it almost becomes par from the course that you get beat every week.

“We have got to change that mentality and we will have to do it by changing personnel. In the five months, we have only put out one team that we wanted to put out. That part’s and parcel of managing at this level. There will be changes. We will be bringing fresh blood in.”

Huttons added: “We knew when we came in we had a massive task and we did see a bit of progression. In the last few weeks the season has just tailed off again and you can see the team had lost a bit of focus because we were just playing out the season.

“We were not able to catch teams above us so we tried a few things, and moved personnel about and see what they were like and what their characters were about. We have probably learnt a great deal as we moved along. We are looking for a higher finish next season without a shadow of a doubt. There is a lot of work to be done.

“We have to manage within our means, we are not going to put the cubs stake at risk, so we will judge it accordingly. A few lads have re-signed and hopefully we will have a few additions.”

In previous close seasons the blue sliding gate of Finn Park used to be pulled over and closed for the winter but this is a hugely important few weeks in Ballybofey, as the club’s board try and make up the financial deficit. Down the years Harps have cried wolf on countless occasions but since work is finally being done on the new stadium in Stranorlar, there is a tangible goal if a licence can be obtained for next season and a glimpse of what the future might bring.