When Finn Harps raised the bar and hammered Athlone Town to reach a first ever FAI Cup final in 1974

Alan Foley


Alan Foley

When Finn Harps raised the bar and hammered Athlone Town to reach a first ever FAI Cup final in 1974
“Is there a carpenter in the ground?,” the optimistic stadium announcer enquired at Oriel Park during the 1974 FAI Cup semi-final.

“Is there a carpenter in the ground?,” the optimistic stadium announcer enquired at Oriel Park during the 1974 FAI Cup semi-final.

It was one of the most comical moments in the history of the League of Ireland; one that was captured by RTÉ’s grainy black and white cameras in Dundalk.

Finn Harps, managed by Patsy McGowan, had shot themselves into a 2-0 lead against Athlone Town and had one foot in a first ever FAI Cup final - just five years after gaining entry to the league with no other than Athlone Town.

From their embryonic admission in 1969 the two clubs had been called the ‘inseparable twins.’ But there were few similarities in Louth that Sunday afternoon, the last day of March, in 1974.

Two Charlie Ferry goals in the quarter-final replay against Bohemians at Finn Park had sealed Harps’ passage.

“From the day we defeated Bohs I always felt as though our name was on the cup,” Harps’ skipper then, Jim Sheridan, said this week.

Against Athlone, Ferry and Brendan Bradley had put the Ballybofey side in front before the curious incident.

Athlone’s goalkeeper Mick O’Brien was considered a charismatic type, well appreciated by the regulars at that old ramshackle of a ground, St Mel’s Park.

“At times on that terrible day he seemed like the only Athlone player on the park who was in any way troubled by the general awfulness of the display,” wrote Declan Lynch, an Athlone Town supporter who was in Dundalk that day, in The Irish Independent in 2001.

“He cared. And perhaps in the end, he cared too much.”

O’Brien was known for his theatrics; known to often swing on the crossbar when shots flew over at St Mel’s, where the goalframe was steel.

At Oriel Park though, it was wooden and cracked as he slung from it. Fifteen minutes came and went, as the stadium announcer made his plea, before it was deemed fit to continue.

Amid the comedic scenes, Harps played some excellent football.

It’s a facet of the game that is sometimes overlooked even now. Their lead went out to 4-0 with Terry Harkin and Bradley, again, on the mark.

With Athlone’s world coming down around them, so too, did O’Brien’s crossbar. Again.

This time he was said to have climbed up the netting to get there but was sent off for his troubles.

“I was trying to fix it, when it came crashing down on top of me,” he explained years later.

“The corner of the post seemed a bit loose so I jumped up to try and mend it. When I touched it the post came away in my hand. I got the fright of my life.

“I always have a habit of hanging onto the bar, to make sure the ball went over. Most of the league’s goalkeeper’s do it. I’m just unfortunate that when I do it, the wretched bar breaks.

“Also I admit that I like to keep the crowd happy. That’s why I do plenty of somersaults and stuff in the goalmouth. Perhaps I go a bit far.

“There’s a third reason. I think I might be over-fit.”

Harps went on to win 5-0, with Paddy McGroary completing the nap-hand, and sealed their passage through to the FAI Cup final.

Fran Fields, the Harps chairman, gave his thoughts on O’Brien’s actions in The Evening Press that week.

“I could not believe it,” he said. “He spoiled the whole day and if he was my player, I would not allow him to wear the club jersey again.”

These feelings were echoed by Harps manager McGowan when he said: “O’Brien made a farce of it. I personally feel sorry for the supporters of Athlone Town.”

The Athlone Town goalkeeper, later nicknamed ‘Tarzan’ in Donegal, was fined £50 and suspended until January 1, 1975.

That October, he was part of the Athlone side - managed by Eunan ‘Busty’ Blake from Letterkenny - who drew 0-0 with AC Milan in the Uefa Cup at St Mel’s. John Minnock - the father of Jonathan, who played for Harps a record 485 times -saw Enrico Albertosi save his limp penalty.

O’Brien kept the Italians at bay until after the hour-mark at the San Siro before they eventually ran out 3-0 winners.

“Mick was a nice fella and a good goalkeeper,” Sheridan said this week. But I don’t know what happened him that day in Dundalk. “People still talk about the crossbar but it takes away from a great performance we put in that day.”

Harps went onto win the FAI Cup for the only time in their history, defeating St Patrick’s Athletic 3-1 in the final at Dalymount Park.

Now, they face the same side again in the last four, 40 years on.

“I’ve not seen much of Harps but always look out for their results,” Sheridan added. “They’re huge underdogs this weekend, of course, but in football you just never know.”

Just like O’Brien’s antics in 1974, Sheridan is right. In football you just never know.