by John O’Hara
‘Ollie who?’ were the cries that echoed through the county upon his appointment as the new manager of Finn Harps just two seasons ago, but last night the Galway native confirmed his cult status among Harps’ fans, who have watched the former Fanad midefielder transform a struggling Division One team into a Premier League outfit.
It really was Roy of the Rovers stuff in Finn Park last night, as BJ Banda played the role of the hero, with a superb header with just minutes remaining in extra-time. And it wasn’t just the performance of the players that was a joy to behold, but seeing the packed out Finn Park rocking in celebration as over 3,000 turned out to cheer on the boys in blue.
It was a nervy opener with Limerick having the lion’s share of possession, attacking up the right, looking increasingly dangerous, until Ollie pushed Foy up on the kicks. This forced the Limerick ‘keeper to go long and it turned the tide. McNamee got more room and he flourished on the left wing, with his trademark runs causing Sean Kelly all sorts of problems. Harps pushed and pushed but were denied twice by the Limerick netminder and it looked like it was going to be one of those nights.
Those thoughts were dispelled just before half-time, when a sublime through ball from Kevin McHugh sent Mickey Funston through on goal and although he took it very wide, the Letterkenny man produced a composed finish, which sent the home crowd into raptures. ‘We’re going up,’ was the cry from the fans, who have had little to cheer about in recent years. Funston’s celebration illustrated what tonight’s game meant to the players, the elation on his face, replacing the pain and hardship that he and these players have endured in recent seasons.
Half-time allowed the fans a breather after a frantic first-half, which was all that they had hoped for and more. The second half started brightly but it was inevitable that Limerick would get on top and Ciaran Gallagher’s goal was under siege on many occasions, but the bravery of the harps’ defence ensured that the goal was not breached.
As the minutes ticked on, the older fans in the crowd would have begun to reminisce about 2002 and the epic play-off against Longford, where a Kevin McHugh hat-trick was over-shadowed by a missed penalty by Tom Mohan. Few would have betted against penalties as the ref blew for full-time.
The back-line of Coll, Mailey, Cowan and McNulty were immense in extra-time, with McNulty showing his class on a number of occasions both attacking and defending. Josh Mailey had Harps’ fans gasping for breath, delaying on the ball in his own box before striking the ball behind for a corner, which looked as if it was heading for the back of his own net.
Extra-time saw the substitution of McHugh and his replacement was the effervescent BJ Banda, the 17 year old, who has only recently joined Ollie’s squad. Banda struggled to get on the ball and was chasing shadows as the lone striker.
Limerick continued to push as Harps began to tire, with cramp becoming a problem among the players, which showed the extremes, which they put their body through on the night. It looked as if they were clinging on for dear life when an attack began down the right. McNulty, who was impressive all evening, had his cross blocked but it came back to him and his second attempt found the head of BJ Banda and he rifled his header in at the front post and Finn Park rocked to a chorus of inexplicable roars. They jumped, they screamed, they roared. Grown men cried with joy as the young boy made himself a Finn Park hero. All the talk was of his miss on Monday night, but he showed his maturity and cajones to forget about the miss and seal an invaluable win for the Navenney Street outfit.
At the other end, Ciaran Gallagher showed his worth in the final seconds with a brave punch, to deal with a dangerous looking cross, with the Limerick ‘keeper and nine other opposition players in the box.
And what about Ollie? Surely the man has to get the recognition he deserves. He has not only transformed players like Funston, Cowen and Mailey but he has transformed an entire club. The club is unrecognisable from the one he took over. The introduction of Banda and Doherty to the senior team shows the strides that have been made in the underage set-up in the club. He has brought a new era of professionalism to the squad with strength and conditioning and nutrition. He has worked tirelessly with the players to make them better and what’s more, he’s succeeded. Many of the players he fielded last night were deemed not good enough under previous managers. He has achieved promotion on a shoestring budget, by making the team stronger than the sum of their parts and bringing pride back to the club.
No stone has been left unturned in Ollie’s quest for promotion. And who would bet that this morning, he wasn’t already thinking about next year? The Brandywell? The Showgrounds? Tallaght? Check, check and check. Get in there! C’mon the Harps.