“My God, they have elected a team with a set of goalposts and two junior players to the league. Now I have seen everything.”
Bill Kelly of the Sunday Press was dismayed by the decision, in the summer of 1969, to admit Finn Harps into the League of Ireland.
Picture: The Finn Harps team which lost 10-2 against Shamrock Rovers on this weekend in 1969
The comments of Kelly at 80 Merrion Square, the former headquarters of the FAI, on the evening of their admission into the League, were echoed by others throughout Ireland. A crowd of eager pressmen, photographers and officials from various clubs had gathered at the FAI base as the top brass discussed a number of applications – including that of Finn Harps FC.
From not long after the club’s formation, in 1954, it had been the dream of Patsy McGowan, the then manager, to take the Ballybofey club into senior football.
The dissenting voices shrilled.
Dan Morrissey, of Cork Hibs, wondered of the logistics to McGowan and the Harps Chairman, Fran Fields.
“If you were admitted to the League, how do you expect Cork Hibs to get to Donegal?’
McGowan was never slow with his answers.
“Mr Morrissey, if we are admitted, we will get to Cork; how you get to Donegal is your affair!”.
Soon, the door burst open and the news relayed that two new clubs had been accepted. Athlone Town and Finn Harps were in.
A reporter told McGowan that Harps would become the League of Ireland’s ‘Cinderella’.
Again, though, the Balybofey man had his riposte ready.
“The only difference being that when the click strikes 12 we’ll be staying to enjoy the ball!”
Fifty years ago this week, Harps played their first ever game in the League of Ireland – famously losing 10-2 against Shamrock Rovers.
Ever since, it has been a story of survival and of defying the odds.
McGowan vowed that he would have Harps in Europe within five years, but he was wrong – they were in the UEFA Cup just four years later!
Success, in terms of winning trophies at the top level, has been confined to a sole FAI Cup win in 1974.
That image of Jim Sheridan, the captain, raising the silverware aloft at Dalymount Park, remains one of the club’s iconic images.
Success, though, surely, can really measured by the club’s ability to survive and keep on keeping on.
The very existence to this day, in a League where the next car crash is never too far in the distance, is, in itself a tale of success for Finn Harps FC.
Harps include some of the League of Ireland’s greatest named among their history.
Brendan Bradley is the LOI’s finest goalscorer, netting 181 times for Harps.
The likes of Con McLaughlin, Jonathan Speake and Kevin McHugh took the baton and carried it with distinction.
Harps are back in the Premier Division again this season and battling survival – just like always, fighting for their lives and their futures all at once.
Harps have overcome a series of set-backs and a sequence of financial crises over the last couple of decades, but as they play in a ten-team Premier Division for the first time, serving relegation in 2019 could well go down as one of the club’s greatest accomplishments.
Current boss Ollie Horgan is the club’s second longest-serving manager, after McGowan. The battles with finance and geography are constant.
The day of Horgan’s first game encapsulated the difficulties of the club at the time.
Harps were playing Cockhill Celtic in Buncrana in a pre-season friendly. On the morning of the gear, Harps’ struggles were laid bare.
The kitbag had no socks.
Those from the 2013 kit had disappeared at the season’s end and the zipper hadn’t been pulled on the hold all as one year became another.
Club secretary John Campbell and Charlie McHugh – a fundraising mainstay at the club – headed for McElhinney’s Stores. The sports department happened to have 17 pairs of green socks on the shelf. The Harps men cleared the lot.
A 20 per cent discount softened the blow on a day when Harps had to ‘borrow’ Cockhill’s Lee McCarron (who would go on to sign for Harps) after goalkeeper Conor Winn got injured.
Consider that Harps have seen off Cork Hibs, Home Farm, Kildare County, Kilkenny City, Monaghan United, Newcastlewest and St James’s Gate, among others in their 50 years.
Shelbourne, Cork City, Derry City, Galway United and Shamrock Rovers have come back from the brink and re-formed.
Harps, though, have managed to retain their identity and keep the ship afloat, however choppy the waters might have been.
The likes of Glenmalure Park, Gortakeegan, Ballygowan Park, Buckley Park and Flower Lodge are all among the lost of former League of Ireland venues and yet Finn Park still stands.
The old place down Navenny Street is a rusting monument to glory days of the past and, yet, in a strange way it gives rise to a sense of hope. It is that hope that has endured generations now. Outdated it may be but, like the club it houses, Finn Park has continued to survive.
And it’s ‘ours’, of course. It is where many hearts still skip a few beats and Harps’ fan-owned model ensures the club retains a close-knit feel, even if the spending power is dwarfed by their Premier Division peers. Horgan, as they had to on that morning of his first friendly, has had to shop for bargains.
Crowds have dropped form the halcyon days of the 70s and European nights against Everton, Derby County, Aberdeen and Busaspor, but the hardcore remains a loyal base of pilgrims.
There have been recent pointers to that oft-used ‘sleeping giant’ phrase when wins over Limerick FC and Derry City have had the old place heaving at its seams.
And on those big nights, when the flames flicker brightest, the old line dances defiantly across the Finn’s waters.
‘Finn Harps, Finn Harps…We’re really here to stay’.