by John O’Hara
As the Donegal League and the Ulster Senior League get to ready to kick back into action, it is clear that all is not well in the county’s soccer set-up. With Derry City’s participation in the Ulster Senior League in doubt, the league could be contested by just five teams; Bonagee, Fanad United, Cockhill Celtic, Swilly Rovers and Letterkenny Rovers.
This is going to be a difficult ask for administrators to run a league, with so little teams and try to make it attractive to supporters and the general public. This is a far cry from the days when Fanad United and Kildrum Tigers played out an enthralling league play-off final, in front of a large crowd in Diamond Park in Ballyare to decide the outcome of the league.
The controversial move to summer football has not worked and even though they have decided to revert back to winter football, the damage has been done. The move to summer football was mooted as a way to improve football in the county, with better playing surfaces and larger crowds, but the soccer public did not agree. Not only was it competing with the GAA season, but it was also in competition with Finn Harps, who had also moved to summer football. The move helped the likes of Finn Harps and Derry City, who were able to give their fringe players regular football, through their USL teams, and the move back has seen the Ballybofey outfit leave the league and Derry City contemplating a similar move.
Fanad United, who were the most vocal opponents of the move in the first place, did not join the league for the short season last year and their stock has plummeted dramatically over the past ten years. Once the kingpins of Donegal soccer, with Intermediate titles in 1988 and 1995 and an unequalled, thirteen league titles, they have decided to go with the youth approach, with former player, Arthur Lynch at the helm. When the move to summer football was announced, they changed their focus from their senior team to their U-19 team, who were allowed to join the League of Ireland competition, which has added significantly to the fractured state of soccer in Donegal. This ploy did not reap the benefits, which the club had envisaged, instead leaving the club in a state of disarray, with players showing little loyalty to the Tri-a-Loch side. This was in contrast to the many players through the nineties who stayed loyal to Fanad, despite overtures from League of Ireland clubs, like Finn Harps and Derry City.
This may be where the source of the problems in Donegal football stems from, with clubs seeing themselves as competitors to the county’s senior club, Finn Harps. Finn Harps should be viewed by the rest of the clubs in the county as the top of the football pyramid, a team that their young players should be aspiring to be part of. Instead, we have a situation where clubs like Letterkenny Rovers are competing with Harps for the signatures of the best talent in the area. It is inexplicable that a player can earn more money in the Ulster Senior League than he can in the League of Ireland. Given the long journeys and the serious commitment of life in the LOI, it’s hardly surprising that players are opting to join teams at lower levels, when the money is as good or even better than what Harps are offering.
When Letterkenny Rovers and Fanad United were allowed to enter the League of Ireland U-19 league, it seriously diluted the quality of the teams in the North-West. All three teams were able to compete in the second tier of the competition, but when Harps got the opportunity to compete at the Elite level, it was clear that they did not have the quality to match the likes of Shamrock Rovers and Cork City. The most infuriating aspect of this, is that had Finn Harps been able to pick a team, without Letterkenny and Fanad, they would have had a team, with the ability to compete. Instead, they were relegated from the Elite section, while Fanad and Letterkenny held their own in the lower tier, but with star players, who would have really added to Harps’ squad. This lack of joined up thinking is hindering the development of soccer in the county.
Why the likes of Fanad and Letterkenny insist on trying to compete with Harps is baffling, when in reality they should be working together towards the common goal of improving soccer in the county. Finn Harps are not entirely blameless in all of this either. For years, they have had a substandard approach to their underage setup and too many young players who went to Finn Park never blossomed and in many cases, went backwards.
Even in the past few years, Harps have been accused of a lack of professionalism, with their U-19 team performing abysmally in their league, while their performances in the Ulster Senior League prior to their exit was a source of embarrassment for the club. These aspects have been acted upon by a progressive board, with Declan Boyle coming in as the club’s U-17 coach and the announcement of Joe Boyle as the U-19 manager is a real coup for the club. Their schoolboy teams are in direct competition with the county squads, but again, great work is taking place at promoting good coaching at all levels.
One of the biggest problems facing the progression of football, is that clubs do not want their players leaving to go to senior clubs, which is something that needs to be addressed. Of course, all clubs want to keep their best players, but surely if a young player has a chance to progress to senior football, clubs should be doing all they can to encourage this. Perhaps we need to look at some sort of incentivised scheme for clubs who produce players, who go on to play senior football.
Another area where Finn Harps could be doing more to garner the support of clubs in the county, is to help with the coaching of local teams. With so many underage teams in the county, it would be a great idea if Harps were willing to start an initiative that would see their players go around different clubs, helping out with training sessions. This would be positive in a number of ways; it would help the underage teams and it would boost Finn Harps’ profile around the county. It would also create positive links between the junior clubs and Finn Harps and would make the acquisition of players from junior teams easier.
The lack of money at Finn Harps is a major stumbling block to providing a financial incentive for junior clubs who produce senior players, but it something that the club might want to consider moving forward. Another helpful step would be for all clubs to acknowledge that Harps are the leading soccer club in the county and instead of trying to rival them, support their cause for the good of soccer. Issues like Donegal League matches taking place at the same time as Finn Harps games shows the lack of cohesion within the county. The fact that the Donegal League Presentation Dance took place at the same time as a home game further highlights this, although it must be noted that this was booked well in advance. But it’s the lack of consideration for Harps that is worrying. The committee of the Donegal League should have an active interest in the welfare of the county’s senior club and vice versa, Harps need to take an interest in the welfare of junior football, as that is where they are getting their players.
The Emerging Talent Programme, which is based in Letterkenny and is run for the best players in the county at each age group from U-12 to U-17 is one of the positive steps taken by the FAI in recent years. The coaching that players are receiving at this is second to none and it has seen the likes of Ryan Rainey, Peter Burke, Harry Doherty and Ryan McConnell get moves to English clubs. But clubs need to be replicating this type of coaching for all young players in the county and this is where the likes of Finn Harps can take the lead. They should also be monitoring the best young players in the county from an early age, ensuring that players are not slipping through the net. Too many of the county’s young players, especially in the Inishowen and border areas, are playing their football with Maiden City in Derry, where they miss out on the Emerging Talent programme and are lost to Donegal clubs, both junior and senior, often never returning to the local clubs.
A lot of commentators are of the opinion that the Donegal League has dropped in standard over the past decade, but it is very hard to judge this type of opinion, but it was clear last year that the highly organised St Catherine’s, of Killybegs, were not challenged for the league title. But when you look at the likes of Matthew Crossan, who came straight from the Donegal League to a starting berth in the League of Ireland, it is clear that the standard is still fairly high. Too many clubs within small catchment areas is always going to dilute the quality and the fact that anyone, regardless of fitness or commitment can get a game at some level often brings down the reputation of a league, despite the fact that the top tier is of a decent quality.
It is clear from conversation with different parties in this debate, that there are many issues that need to be resolved if we are to develop a cohesive strategy for moving soccer forward in Donegal. With so many quality players, there are still too few making the grade at a professional level. This anomaly has a lot to do with the actions of those at the head of the footballing family of Donegal and it’s time that they faced up to the problems. There are so many people doing such stellar work, but they are not seeing the bigger picture when it comes to the development of football.
Surely the time has come for a meeting of all soccer clubs in Donegal, from the Inishowen League, The Donegal League, The Ulster Senior League and Finn Harps. Representatives from all the clubs can thrash out all the issues, all the problems and try to come up with a plan to improve soccer in the county. A plan that would see the best young players get the right coaching, the right nutritional and fitness advice and most importantly the right opportunities to allow them to become professional football players, who can go on to represent The Republic of Ireland.