HIS career was pockmarked by a series of near misses and what ifs, but Fergal Harkin isn’t weighed down by regrets from the past.
The Ballyliffin man is working with Manchester City as the club’s Football Partnerships and Pathways Manager. He has held a variety of roles since taking up employment at the Etihad Stadium 11 years ago.
Picture: Fergal Harkin plays for Finn Harps in the 1999 FAI Cup final against Bray Wanderers.
Harkin hadn’t always yearned for a career in the Premier League but for a time in the late 1990s he found himself on the books of a Leicester City side beginning to rub shoulder with English football’s elite.
Martin O’Neill was manager as Leicester flirted with the top dogs and Harkin appeared as an unlikely possibility among the hopefuls.
“I generally never got a look in with Donegal teams at underage,” he tells Donegal Daily/Donegal Sport Hub.
“I was always really small. Physically and also height-wise, I was really slight.”
Inishowen’s schoolboys teamed up with their Donegal counterparts for representative matches. Harkin played for Clonmany Shamrocks seniors in the Inishowen League at 15, but the Premier League was a world away.
IT was when Harkin headed to Loughborough University, where he studied PE and Sports Science, that he began to dream.
“I learned about what I needed to do and my football took off after that,” he says.
“There wasn’t much back at home. I played with Clonmany but underage we only played about 13 League games a season, which lasted only from April to June. We had nothing apart from that.”
The young Harkin togged out with Urris until an ’ultimatum’ by a Gaelic football coach saw him concentrate on soccer. He was 12.
“It was completely wrong to make a young boy at that age choose like that,” he says. “I had played Gaelic football for Urris and also in school. I played everything until then. I did running, soccer, Gaelic, everything.”
At Loughborough, Harkin played in a competitive college league as well as playing friendlies against academy teams from the likes of Nottingham Forest, Derby County and Leicester City.
Leicester liked what they saw and, after six months with the Foxes Reserves, Harkin was involved in pre-season.
He says: “There was a really long period at Leicester City before I got a contract. Pre-season seemed to go on forever. We played 13 games in six weeks. It seemed like every minute of the day, we were playing matches. It was brilliant. I was at university and here I was playing with the likes of Emile Heskey and Neil Lennon.”
Harkin penned a contract at Leicester City without any fuss back home.
“I got a call from Clonmany Shamrocks to say congratulations and that was about it,” he says.
“There was no fanfare as such – and rightly so. I wasn’t in the first team. I was only at the reserves and had a million miles to go. I needed to push on and make the first team before I would start shouting about it. There was so much further to go.
“All I had achieved was being seen as a top player in my area. Football is a global game. You’re competing with county and country first and then you have players from Europe and all over the world. You have to be one of the best and clubs can pick players up for next to nothing. There is so much that can go wrong. You can have all the ability, but you need luck too. You have to have ability, the work rate and the application – and, even then, it’s a long road.
“I just wanted to make the most of it and couldn’t have any excuses.”
Harkin appeared for his first pre-season session and sat down to get changed. The man next to him was Emile Heskey, who would be capped 62 times for England and later signed for Liverpool.
“I was getting money for the first time to play football,” Harkin says.
“The hardest thing was the boredom. There was study, a social life and the football. I was a professional footballer, but I was on pittance. I couldn’t afford a car and I had to get a bus into training.
“We trained from 10-12 and that was it. I needed to do more. I stayed on some afternoons and the senior players did the same. I embraced that side of it, the extra work in training.”
He recalls O’Neill as a ‘great motivator’ and Harkin was rubbing shoulders with an exciting squad, training three times a week with the seniors.
He says: “I loved it. I just loved it. I gave it everything I had too.”
MIDWAY through his first season at Filbert Street, the warning sign arrived for Harkin. Spots were beginning to appear in an injury-hit first team squad ahead of the traditionally busy Christmas period.
“They allowed me to come home for Christmas, which showed exactly where I was at,” he says.
“I felt that I was playing as well as I ever did and I thought I was close to getting a shout.”
In the early months of 1998, Harkin had the conversation no young player wants to have. O’Neill was telling him that he was to be released. Harkin sat across the table, trying to listen but barely unable to process the words.
“It is one of the toughest things that you can hear; that your dream is basically being shattered and you’re not good enough,” he says.
“We had a game the next day – against Manchester City actually – and I was supposed to play. I just had to try and lift myself to perform. I still had a determination not to throw it all away because I had worked really hard. There were one or two people who thought I wasn’t good enough for Leicester City.
“I wasn’t good enough to play in the Premier League, but I felt that I was good enough to have some kind of professional career.”
All wasn’t lost, though for Harkin, perhaps a victim of Leicester’s success during a period where the club won two League Cups and twice finished inside the top ten of the Premier League. A handful of trials offered hope and he agreed terms with Port Vale.
With the bags packed in Ballyliffin, the shutters came down again. Port Vale manager John Rudge called to drop a bombshell.
“Port Vale had no money,” Harkin recalls. “I had everything agreed with Port Vale and I was to start on July 1. The night before I was due to fly over, I got the call from John saying that the club couldn’t honour the contract. There was nothing signed, although everything was agreed.
“Everyone else was starting pre-season and I was in limbo. I didn’t want to go on trial again.”
HARKIN knew Eamon Collins from some coaching courses and summer schools. Collins was the assistant manager at Bohemians, who had just appointed Joe McGrath as manager. McGrath took over from Turlough O’Connor having managed the New Zealand seniors.
McGrath – a late appointment in pre-season – arrived full of promise, recruiting Jason Batty, Harry Ngata, Dean Dodds and Raf De Geegorio.
After just nine games, McGrath was gone and the colourful Roddy Collins took over the Gypsies.
It was the beginning of the end for Harkin.
“I thought signing for Bohs made a bit of sense,” Harkin says.
“I could maybe get back to England if I was spotted again or, if not, I could forge a career in Ireland.
“When Roddy came in, he just told me that I wasn’t his type of player and I wasn’t going to play for him. We shook hands. He probably didn’t rate me and that was his way of saying it. I actually appreciated that and he didn’t waste my time.
A FEW months later, Harkin was running out at Tolka Park with Finn Harps in the 1999 FAI Cup final.
Harkin netted his first Harps goal in a 6-0 replay win over Belgrove that January.
Harkin, told he was being let go by Leicester just over a year earlier, was now playing on Irish club football’s biggest stage.
Signing for Harps made sense – even for the Dublin-based Harkin, who was back at college.
“Initially when I signed at Bohs, I was led to believe they were full-time, but we just trained on Tuesday and Thursday evenings,” he says.
“I was bored stupid so I went back to college in Dublin Business School. The travel was difficult, but it was only every other weekend. I didn’t come back for training.”
With the likes of Derek Wilkinson and Peter Furlong, Harkin came back for games, but trained during the week with Bray Wanderers. Come mid-April in 1999, that arrangement would have added spice for Harkin.
“There was no pressure on me when I signed for Harps. I didn’t have to prove anything and I wasn’t coming back with any sort of big reputation.
“I kept more of an eye on Derry when I was younger. They were flying at the time. I watched Derry now and again.
“I was always aware of how Harps were doing and they were getting big crowds. It was an exciting time for Harps. It meant that mum and dad could come and watch me for the first time.
“There was a great camaraderie in that squad and a great work rate. Charlie (McGeever) was great as a manager. We had such a good team and he put us all together so well.
“The one bit I missed was the training. I hated training. I trained with Bray Wanderers. The only time I didn’t train with them was before we played Harps. It was only fitness work, really. It’s funny to think now, but teams didn’t work on ‘shape’ or do much detail on formation or set pieces in those days.”
Harkin recalls the quarter-final replay win over Cork as a real highlight of the odyssey.
“The quarter-final against Cork was amazing,” he says. “Donal (O’Brien), I remember, missed a chance in Cork and got slaughtered. The replay was like a fairytale with Donal scoring the winner late.
“That 1998/99 season was just brilliant. We thought we could beat anyone.”
Harps defeated Galway United on Easter Sunday ’99 to book a place in the Cup final for the first time in 25 years.
“It was fine for me being in Dublin so it wasn’t as big a deal as it was back in Donegal,” Harkin says.
“It was certainly a bit calmer.”
Before a packed Tolka Park, Harps and Bray played out a dour 0-0 draw with Harps saved by goalkeeper Brian McKenna late in the day.
“Charlie hammered us after the first game,” Harkin says.
“Just for being so poor. He was right, too. That was a horrible game and we just didn’t do ourselves justice.”
The following week, they were back again and it remains a day engrained on the minds of those present.
First, Jonathan Speak looked to have been the hero in normal time, but Barry O’Connor forced extra time with a late leveller. Tom Mohan restored Harps’ advantage and the ribbons were almost tied when it happened …
The clock was in its 122nd minute, fans were dangled over the perimeter fence. Harps were about to end a quarter-of-a-century famine.
“We were robbed,” Harkin says.
Bray were awarded a penalty. McKenna saved Colm Tresson’s spot kick, but Ciaran O’Brien netted from the rebound. O’Brien was well inside the area when Tresson took aim.
“We were aware of it even on the bench,” Harkin remembers.
“I was off at the time. Myself and Tom were sitting on the bench. You couldn’t help but think: ‘This is it. We’re going to win it’.
“The referee and the linesman got it completely wrong. The guy who scored the rebound was nearly on the penalty spot. It was so obvious. We got no explanation at all.
“We did feel that we had thrown it away. We were robbed, but we still had another chance. We were hard done by and we just couldn’t get over the line.
“We felt that we had so much to prove in the second game. We put in such a good performance and we should have won it.”
A third day out and Jason Byrne’s double saw Bray – relegated from the Premier Division just weeks earlier – take the prize after Speak had put Harps in front with an early goal.
“The Cup final was a killer and the club really still hasn’t properly got over it,” Harkin says.
“The euphoria around the final went on for two weeks and it was a long period. Maybe that took something out of us, going up and down the road every few days. Bray were relegated that year. We should have won the final. That’s the reality of it – but that’s football. The second day was the most difficult. We had played so well.”
Harps finished fourth in the Premier Division that season, missing out on a European spot by a point.
So close and yet …
THE Cup final hangover cast a shadow over Finn Park the following season.
After seven League games – and six defeats – McGeever stepped down as manager. Soon, the financial worries arrived and relegation loomed. With the arrival of English striker Mike Turner on loan from Barnsley, Harps managed to stay up.
“It was just a downward trend after the final,” Harkin says.
“I can’t put my finger on what actually happened. I was made captain halfway through that season and it was a really proud moment to be made the captain of my home team. To be captain of any team is huge, but being captain of that group was a very proud moment.
“It was difficult, though, because I still wasn’t training with the team. I didn’t feel like a true captain. I did on match day, but I always had it in my mind that I wasn’t training with the lads. At times we played some great football, but we were really inconsistent.
“Mike coming in that season was exactly what we needed. He gave us a different dimension and no-one knew him. He did really well and was a big part of us staying up.”
Gavin Dykes had the reigns for the following season, but he departed to be replaced by Speak as player-manager.
Harps had failed to arrest the slide, but back-to-back 4-1 wins over St Patrick’s Athletic and Bray Wanderers offered real hope as the finish line came into view.
On May 6, 2001, a splendid summer Sunday, Harps had to beat Longford and hope that UCD failed to defeat Galway. A dramatic injury-time winner by Niall Bonner sent Finn Park wild. UCD were leading in Galway, but word whispered around Ballybofey of a late Galway equaliser.
It was another false dawn. Soon, the speakers around Finn Park played RTÉ’s commentary from Terryland Park and reality began to set in.
“It was like VAR multiplied by a hundred,” Harkin says now, 19 years on.
“With VAR, teams score a goal and it’s taken off you and that’s hard to take. We were told that we were staying up and that it was all over. Then, you’re not. You’re relegated.
“That was horrible. That was just really horrible.
“Relegation was devastating. I remember the final whistle, walking off and thinking: ‘Yes, we’ve done it!’. By the time I had got the length of the dug-pit, we were gone. It was horrible. The worst. Losing the Cup final was one thing, but relegation was just awful. No-one wants that.”
Harkin admits a regret from earlier that season when he missed a penalty in a drawn game with Kilkenny (a 1-1 stalemate in which he scored the Harps goal). Harps drew 12 games that season and were only a point off UCD at the end of it all.
RELEGATION had Harkin reassessing his options and he was coaxed back to Dalymount Park by Bohemains boss Pete Mahon in the summer 2001.
A managerial change rocked him again, though.
Stpehen Kenny was just 30 when he took over from Mahon during the 2001 campaign – and he stayed for nearly three years.
Harkin stayed with the Gypsies until his retirement in 2007 and he recalls Kenny – who last week succeeded Mick McCarthy as the Republic of Ireland manager – as being ‘confident and demanding’.
He said: “Stephen was very clear in what he wanted. We felt that we could beat anyone at the time.
“Even though Stephen was young – remember, some of the players were actually older than he was – he had a lot of confidence. He was demanding too and we had a lot of arguments.
“Stephen put a lot of pressure on me. Me and Tony O’Connor were working at the time and all the other players were full-time. We had to juggle work a lot and it was tough.”
Harkin won a Premier Division title in his second season at the club and Harkin holds the Dubliner in high regard, even if the demands on him were many..
He says: “Stephen put pressure on, but that was his job and I played my best football under Stephen. To answer, who was the best manager, you ask which manager got the best out of me and which manager did I win under? Stephen is the answer to both.
“It’s great for the League of Ireland that he’s got the job. It’s always nice to see people who started in the League of Ireland come on and do well and Stephen deserves his chance. This will give other people in the League confidence that there could be an opportunity to step up now too.”
Harkin had been Harps’ Player of the Year in the 1999/00 season and he won two Player of the Year awards at Bohemians – where he got to experience some big European nights against the likes of BATE Borisov and Rosenborg – before injury cut short his career in 2007.
He was only touching his 31st birthday when he retired from the game due to a troublesome knee injury.
Now, all those years later, he has carved a Premier League career, albeit not how he might have expected it.