The Finn Harps team of 1968
The year was 1968. It’s exactly half a century ago. Football’s FAI Junior Cup was set to come to Donegal for the second year in succession. Hardly earth shattering news! It was, however, no run of the mill trophy win; arguably it was a moment that changed the face of Donegal football forever.
When the final throw of the dice was launched – in the second replay of the FAI Junior Cup final of that year - three Donegal men, eight citizens of Derry and an Englishman working in Convoy were about to pull off a remarkable coup, the resonances of which last to this day. Finn Harps were not just set to win the FAI Junior Cup, they were making history.
I recall it as if it was yesterday; I was the team captain; how could I forget. How quickly the years have drifted away? I find it incredible to take in - but the calendar doesn’t lie; this month, fifty years ago, in the sunshine of June Finn Harps pulled off a momentous coup.
Earlier that June Senator Robert Kennedy was shot and fatally wounded in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California Democratic primary election; in Ireland the first major civil rights march would take place later that year from Coalisland to Dungannon.
In Donegal football fans were turning out in good numbers to witness Finn Harps battling for glory in the closing stages of an FAI Junior Cup campaign that had coughed up some unbelievable moments. Remarkably, no one at large knew what was really at stake.
You see Harps had an ambitions to be the first Donegal club to play senior soccer. But they didn’t want anyone else to know – certainly not the other top Donegal clubs.
On the face of it that dream was far-fetched. The club’s status hardly suggested League of Ireland material. Initially there was literally nothing at Finn Park – only a summer cup team. No facilities existed there at all. A set of goalposts was Harps only possession.
Patsy McGowan and I had often debated why a county as passionate about its sport as Donegal had no senior soccer club. We both worked in Letterkenny in those days. Patsy was a CIE lorry driver and I was in the offices of the now defunct Lough Swilly Transport Company. I often travelled to my then home in Killea after work with Patsy, who was on his way to Derry to pick up containers. We used to have far-fetched conversations on how the senior game might be brought to the Republic of Ireland’s north-west county.
To cut to the chase this endless babble on that CIE lorry had prompted Patsy to enquire of one of the great, far-seeing FAI officials, of the time, the then secretary Joe Wickham, what was required of his club if senior football was to be brought to Donegal?
Joe Wickham’s reply didn’t pull any punches: he said it would be great if it could be done but he made it clear Harps were virtually unknown and while they remained like that there could be no senior football.
He insisted they must have a national profile. He suggested if they could win the FAI Junior Cup he would then allow them to enter the FAI Intermediate Cup where no Donegal team had ever ventured. If those two objectives could be achieved then he believed the League of Ireland legislators would welcome a Donegal team into the country’s elite division.
Finn Harps of course hadn’t the playing strength to win a national competition like the FAI Junior Cup – a trophy competed for each year by hundreds of clubs across the country. Indeed, they were barely capable of getting by the early rounds of the weaker summer tournaments.
However, Harps forged a link with Foyle Rovers, who played under the jurisdiction of the Derry & District Football Association. The Derry & District Football Association was affiliated to neither the IFA nor the FAI so Joe Wickham deemed the Foyle Rovers players (a club I also played for in those days) eligible to play in the IFA Junior Cup.
And in a splendid piece of nepotism, Patsy managed the new Finn Harps team and I became the captain. And during that cup campaign an important addition was made to the Finn Harps set up. Patsy – desperately in need of more support from the Twin Towns (Ballybofey – Stranorlar) – brought another Donegal football enthusiast, Fran Fields, on board. Fran was immediately installed as club chairman.
And so began the cup campaign that would change the face of Donegal soccer, forever. It was set to produce extraordinary drama: a host of replays, late, late goals and several protests (one was particularly acrimonious) and you can begin to understand why a competition that began in the depth of a Donegal winter was still occupying the headline writers in the local and national press in early summer.
Harps actually lost their first game in the tournament against Donegal opposition but they went through after a protest; their opponents had fielded several illegal players.
After that scare the next assignment was in Dundalk. A late goal was needed against Bank United as we managed to scramble our way to a one-one draw. The replay was won in a canter – seven goals to one.
We were then drawn away to a Sligo club. This tie produced more evidence that Donegal football was greatly favoured by the game’s metaphorical gods. Harps were three down with less than half an hour to play but fought back to grab a replay. In the rematch in Ballybofey we won by two goals to one.
The quarter-final denouement was resolved partly in the committee rooms and on the field of play. At Finn Park we comfortably by passed the Bray club, Valeview by two goals to nil. However, they protested. Player-manager Patsy McGowan, our goalkeeper, was injured during the game and the Harps replacement John Young, although properly registered, was not listed on the team sheet. Tony McCallion, a forward, was the substitute listed on the official match card (one substitute only in those days). The county Wicklow side found out and promptly objected.
Patsy McGowan raced off to Merrion Square in Dublin bearing a doctor’s certificate. His contention was that he had been ill in the days prior to the game and that as a consequence the logical pre-match thinking - in event of he not being able to sustain the 90 minutes after his illness was to name as a substitute a goalkeeper, newly signed John Young. McGowan’s case rested on the submission that someone in the pre-match confusion had inadvertently written the wrong name on the referee’s card. And it worked: the football legislators didn’t dismiss Harps from the competition for playing a player who wasn’t on the referee’s card as many feared. Instead, the FAI ordered a replay. But this time the game was in Bray. That didn’t matter, what counted was that the dreams of senior football were still alive. Someone up there loves you baby.
Harps celebrated that let-off by winning 1-0 at the Carlisle Grounds. Although it’s a long, long time ago I have two distinct memories of that game. It was tetchy, it was tense and it was at times nasty.
Our centre-half Dessie McLaughlin had an injury and couldn’t play. Billy Jackson, the only other real stopper in the panel went in to play centre-back. But as happens sometimes in these situation, the crisis tends to worsen; he got a knock early on and looked like he might have to depart the war zone.
A posse of mentors were on the pitch assisting the injured player. One of the Valeview team attendants asked was a stretcher needed. Patsy, our manager, who had also joined the throng around the injured player replied in a forthright manner: “If you bring on a stretcher you could be F….. g taken off on it yourself” A startled referees said he was having none of that nonsense; and Patsy was banished quickly to the touch-line again.
There was a later stage in the same game -– the closing five minutes or so - when we were protecting our 1-0 lead – a goal scored by Liam McLaughlin after Andy Hegarty had done the heavy lifting - and they were pushing forward frantically in search of parity. I suddenly had an opportunity to remove the ball from the proceedings. Patsy’s thunderous roar on the touch-line remains with me to this day. ‘Kick it to Killea,’ he roared. The Bray guys of course had no idea where that mysterious place lay. In any case I failed to get the ball out of the ground but the good news is we held on.
In the semi-final at Finn Park Harps trailed the Dubliners Talbot United 2-1 with time fading away. We were in stoppage time. Were we about to fail? Suddenly a lifeline appeared. Right at the death the referee awarded Finn Harps a free kick on left side of the last third of the field attacking the river Finn end of the ground. Tony McCallion immediately volunteered to have a go at goal. Tony could really whack a ball and he had often scored spectacular long range goals. My dilemma as the captain was his inconsistency. Some time he’d put the ball into the surrounding countryside. Now he was saying: ‘I’ll put this in the net.’
I rejected his request, deciding instead to play the ball into the back of the crowded penalty area where I think a scramble ensued and Alan Wellburn, an English man working in Convoy, got the last touch to score. And there was just time to restart the game before the referee blew the final whistle. At Tolka Park we controlled the replay and won by a goal to nil. Was our name written on the trophy?
Finn Harps were in the final of the FAI Junior Cup for the first time. But the most dramatic escape of all was still to come.
At Tolka Park the final against Dublin’s Telephones United was competitive and nervy and it ended 1-1; Jimmy Barclay equalised for Harps. The replay was set for Letterkenny, at Leckview Park, the home of Letterkenny Rovers. The reason as I recall for that was that Harps had faced so many replays and protests it was now well into June and the Dublin grounds had closed down for maintenance, hence the decision to play the replay in Donegal.
Harps had dominated the play against Telephones but were trailing 2-1 in a contest that was now in the second period of extra time. The game had drifted into stoppage time. Was the last hurdle to prove our undoing? Charlie Ferry had scored the Finn Harps goal with a cheeky back heel. But now that clever piece of improvisation seemed to have been in vain. Then destiny intervened again.
We won an indirect free kick. It was so late in the contest that when the referee blew his whistle for that free some of the Dublin players punched the air believing they’d won the FAI Junior Cup. They hadn’t – but we were once more in the last chance saloon. Tony McCallion wanted to have another go. However, I took that free-kick myself, again. Great to be the captain. When the ball was rolled back to me I managed to get it over the ten-man barricade set up by the Dubliners and with the keeper isolated at one of the posts we were into another replay. Someone, somewhere must have been rooting for us.
To give an indication of the amount of drama Harps had conjured up at that time in Donegal football circles here’s some stuff from the Derry Journal of Tuesday. 18th June 1968. It’s from the report of that first replay I have just been describing - the 2-2 draw at Leckview.
“Even the most cynical critics must have found enough excitement and drama in this FAI Junior Cup final replay at Letterkenny on Sunday to re-light his enthusiasm.
A controversial penalty that for nearly an hour looked like the only goal of the match; a memorable late equaliser that earned a first period of extra time; a dramatic second goal from Telephones United in the second session of extra time that seemed certain to mark Finn Harps as the unluckiest final losers of all time; and a match-saving second equaliser that occurred in such sensational circumstances and in such a dramatic way that, in retrospect, it looked like the denouement of a fiction writer striving for an incredible ending to his story.
These two teams have now battled four hours and still the destination of the trophy remains unsettled. Finn Harps must truly be wondering if the cup is to prove to them a will o’ the wisp – something that forever seemed within their grasp yet could never be quite securely pinned down.’.
In the second replay of the final Finn Harps did pin it down – winning 4-0. Senior soccer beckoned for Donegal. The Finn Harps team: John Young, Eddie McAdams, Fergus McNulty, Billy Jackson, Des McLaughlin, Richie Kelly, Jimmy Barclay, Alan Wellburn, Stanley Hamilton, Andy Hegarty and Liam McLaughlin. Sub: Tony McCallion. Charlie Ferry had played in the two previous game of the final but was unavailable for the second replay.
That same year – 1968 Harps got to play in the FAI Intermediate Cup, the first Donegal club to do so. We lost to Belgrove after a replay in Dublin. We were beaten by a last minute goal. It was heartbreaking but that’s football. However, there was an early indication that Harps were capable of progressing up the ladder as demanded by Joe Wickham. Here’s what the Donegal Democrat of Friday June 29 had to say about that FAI Intermediate Cup defeat
‘Finn Harps are out of the FAI Intermediate Cup, but they gave a great display before going. At Ballybofey in the first game they were lucky to draw, but in the replay at Belgrove on Sunday last they should have run out easy winners. They pinned Belgrove in their own half of the field for most of the game and turned in a polished display of fast attacking football that the home team could never match.’
There you have it. A remarkable story was beginning and half a century on the flame still burns.