by John O’Hara
738 people made their way through the turnstiles of Finn Park on Friday night to watch Ollie Horgan’s charges retain their position at the top of the table, while on Saturday evening over 10,000 people made the trek south to the capital to watch Rory Gallagher’s team book their place in this year’s all-Ireland quarter-final.
It is baffling that there is such a gulf in the numbers willing to travel to Ballybofey to watch League of Ireland soccer and those who will travel across the country to see Michael Murphy and co in action.
Jim McGuinness’ four year reign was a catalyst for the surge in support among the GAA fraternity, but few people seem to realise that across the road in Navenney Street, a quiet revolution is already underway with another great leader at the helm; Ollie Horgan.
While the plaudits at the back of the newspapers are being handed out to GAA stars, Ollie Horgan is quietly masterminding one of the greatest sporting turn-arounds of the last decade, with his Finn Harps team sitting pretty at the top of the table.
The detractors and the begrudgers will tell you that the league is a poor standard of football, that being top of the league is hardly a big deal, but scratch beneath the surface and you will see that the transformation of the club over the past two seasons has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Horgan’s predecessor, Peter Hutton, left the club under a cloud, with the team finishing in the bottom half of the table. Ollie Horgan was announced as the new manager, amidst a sense of shock among the footballing community in Donegal. Ollie, who was an esteemed player with Fanad United, went on to manage the Tri-a-Loch side for a number of years, playing a very robust style of football that yielded great results, but was not pretty on the eye.
Eyebrows were raised among fans too, who had expected a more familiar name to take the helm, but the doubters have certainly been won over during the past two years, as Ollie, with the help of his backroom team have transformed the club from top to bottom.
Joe Boyle, who has held very important coaching positions within the FAI is the new U-19 manager, while club legend, Declan Boyle has been appointed the manager of the U-17 team. William O’Connor and James Gallagher form part of Ollie’s backroom team and these men represent the highest quality available in the county.
The St Eunan’s school teacher inherited a team from Hutton that was low on morale and high on wages, with the budget slashed for the 2014 campaign. He spoke publicly about the difficulties in getting players to play for the club for €50 a week, while having to travel to Cobh and back on the same day. It would be unheard of for Donegal GAA players to do this, with adequate funding for week long training camps in the lead up to games, never mind the expenses of an over-night trip.
Despite this, Horgan did some great business, getting Ruairi Keating on loan, while also snapping up the services of Damien McNulty and Packie Mailey. The signings of Connor Winn, Graham Fisher and highly rated Carel Tiofack did not work but it could be pointed out that the club and Ollie were under severe pressure in terms of time management and it was a good learning curve for future forays into the transfer market.
That first season saw a massive emphasis on defensive tactics, as Horgan cemented his reputation as a negative manager. But much like his counterpart, Jim McGuinness, the pragmatic Galway man knew that a successful team must be built on a solid foundation. The critics pointed to the lack of goals, but the loss of Keating back to his parent club Sligo and the fact that club legend, Kevin McHugh had struggled with a hamstring problem at the beginning of the season was one of the major factors in the lack of goals. The other big problem for the club was the fact that a top quality striker would demand a large percentage of the wage budget and it was not feasible to try to attract such a player.
Like McGuinness, Ollie was not unduly worried about the criticism he received, painting a picture of a man very comfortable with his knowledge of football and his ability as a coach. His unorthodox touch-line manner was earning him a cult following throughout the country and a few suspensions in the FAI, but it was his robust style of playing that had the pundits talking, with the club picking up a record number of red cards throughout the season.
All-in-all, it was a topsy turvy start to the Horgan reign and though the league campaign petered out, with too many draws and not enough goals, the memorable cup run to the semi-final, where they were beaten by St Pat’s in Dublin created a real feel good factor around the club.
The signing of Frenchman, Wilfried Tagbo had the fans eagerly anticipating the start of the new season, but it was the capture of Keating on loan once again and the re-signing of net-minder Ciaran Gallagher that sparked the unusual sense of optimism in the Finn Valley area. Raymond Foy and Tony McNamee also came on board and all of a sudden, it was clear that Ollie had assembled a squad capable of challenging for promotion.
With just eight games to go, Harps are sitting at the top of the league, but with Wexford Youths hot on their heals, with a game in hand. UCD and Shelbourne are also vying for promotion and the last eight games are going to be the most important games of Horgan’s managerial career.
Four of these games are at home, with the final game of the season likely to be a crunch tie for the club, as they host Wexford Youths. But surely it is time the Donegal public started to take an interest in the fortunes of the county’s only senior club. The club is stuck in a vicious cycle; without the crowds, they cannot afford to sign big name players and without the big name players, they can’t get the crowds.
It is inexplicable that people from Donegal will travel to England and Scotland every Saturday to watch Premier League teams in action but won’t make the short trip to cheer on local players playing for a local team. The board of Finn Harps have worked valiantly to ensure that senior football stays in Donegal but at times they must feel like they are pushing back the tide, when they see the takings from the gate.
With eight games to go and a chance that League of Ireland Premier Division Football could be on our door step next year, everyone in the county should be making the effort to go along and get behind the team. It is only with the support of the people of Donegal that Finn Harps can reach its potential and become a powerhouse of Irish football.
The county got behind the great Jim McGuinness, who led us to glory, now it’s time to give Ollie the credit he deserves and get behind him and his men for the final push towards promotion.