THE GUESSING game went into overdrive this morning three years ago.
It was the morning after the night before when Finn Harps’ committee met to discuss, for the final time, its options for a new manager.
When Peter Hutton stepped down at the end of the 2013 season, bizarrely handing a resignation letter to two journalists on the Finn Park terrace prior to the final home game of the year, Harps were at a low ebb.
The Chairman, Joey O’Leary, had just announced that he was stepping down from his post and the outlook, at best, was rather bleak.
Yet, when the Board appointed a selection committee – John Campbell, Aidan Campbell and James Rodgers – to oversee the process of selecting a new manager, there was big interest.[adrotate group=”88″]
Twelve applications – peculiarly including one from Julian Dicks, the former West Ham and Liverpool player – were initially received by the club.
Ten of those were interviewed. That list was whittled down to five candidates, who were interviewed a second time, the selection committee since joined on the panel by Board members Sean Quinn, Seamus Gallagher and Chantelle Grant.
Sean Connor, the ex-Sligo and Bohemians manager, withdrew from the race.
The contenders, apparently, were Joe Boyle, Sean McGowan, Don O’Riordan and a combination of Paddy Foy and Pat McFadden.
The others received a phonecall informing them ‘thanks but no thanks’, O’Riordan, then based in China, was emailed having been interviewed via Skype.
The man who would be king had barely been linked to the throne in the weeks previous.
Word did the rounds of the others being told they’d been unsuccessful.
Another phone call was made, by the club secretary John Campbell.[adrotate group=”50″]
“It would be, without doubt, one of the best days of my life,” Ollie Horgan mentioned at a press conference, unveiling him as the new manager of Finn Harps.
So impressed were the Board by Horgan’s interviews that he was said to have ‘shot the lights out’ and, ultimately, ‘romped home’ when the votes were tallied.
The appeal of Horgan became apparent quite quickly: He was locally based, wouldn’t break the bank, had a reputation for getting the best out of players and knew the football scene in Donegal like the back of his hands.
He was no stranger to the role of a surprise appointee. It was the same when he took over at Triagh-A-Locha as the manager of Fanad United following Eamon McConigley’s departure.
Under Horgan, Fanad won three Ulster Senior League titles and to those who knew and worked with him, his ascension to the throne at Finn Park was no surprise at all.
“Anybody with ambition in football would be mad not to jump at the chance to manage this football club,” Horgan said following his unveiling
“The potential, the support to me and what possibly is out there is enormous.
“There are enough to compete at a higher level in the First Division, with or without a high budget. Most certainly I have high hopes that we can achieve.”
Horgan knew well what he was letting himself in for, but even he perhaps didn’t quite expect things to begin with the very challenge of what lay ahead being made so obvious.
On the morning of January 18, 2014, Horgan was preparing for his first game as the Finn Harps manager.
Ulster Senior League double winners Cockhill Celtic played host to Harps at The Charlie O’Donnell Sports Grounds, just outside Buncrana.[adrotate group=”76″]
On the morning of the game, as officials were readying for the game, the struggles that Horgan and Harps had were laid bare: The kitbag had no socks. Finn Harps Football Club did not, at the start of pre-season, own enough pairs of socks for their players.
Those from the 2013 kit had disappeared at season’s end and the zipper hadn’t been pulled on the holdall from the tail end of one year to the beginning of the next.
That morning, John Campbell and Charlie McHugh – a former Director turned fundraiser, one of the mainstays of the club’s Super 4 Lotto and who sells half-time draw tickets on Navenny Street on match nights – headed for McElhinney’s Stores.
The sports department in McElhinney’s had 17 pairs of green O’Neill’s socks left. The two men cleared the shelf.
A 20 per cent discount from McElhinney’s on the purchase softened the blow.
The Harps team assembled by Horgan comprised mainly of triallists.[adrotate group=”53″]
He was without a goalkeeper in those early weeks of his tenure after Ciaran Gallagher left for Derry City, taking up the offer of full-time football.
In goal that day in Buncrana was Conor Winn, a 21-year old Englishman, who was previously on the books of Salthill, Mervue, Galway United, Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk.
The 6’6” Winn was forced off injured during the second half.
Again, the size of the task facing Horgan was illuminated by the fact that he had to ‘borrow’ Cockhill’s substitute goalkeeper, Lee McCarron.
Winn became Harps’ number 1 for the 2014 season, a campaign that saw Harps’ push for the play-offs wilt, but they did reach the semi-finals of the FAI Cup, losing heavily, 6-1 to St Patrick’s Athletic.
In his second season, Horgan guided Harps into the play-offs and the dizzying night last November, when BJ Banda’s history-changing header fired Harps to a win over Limerick, saw Harps reclaim their place in the Premier Division.
Against a backdrop of financial strain and geographical battles, Horgan managed to keep Harps in the top flight.
Their season was threatening to go off course at one stage, but they steadied the wobbles and they stayed afloat.[adrotate group=”46″]
The challenge doesn’t get any easier and, if anything, Horgan faces the biggest test yet this winter.
If rumours are to be believed, anything up to a dozen players could be leaving Finn Park.
Horgan admits to hating this time of year, but at the heart of it all he relishes those moments when the odds are stacked against him.
Yet again, he’ll look to defy them.
At Horgan’s unveiling three years ago, Aidan Campbell told the attendance: “We do have to be realistic and reasonable in that we’re coming in from a very low base. We don’t expect miracles, but we would expect a significant improvement on our League position.”
One could say he has performed miracles already, but he might have to work some magic again in the coming weeks as he attempts to assemble a Premier squad down Navenny Street for 2017.Tags: