It was a journey into the unknown for me. After maybe 40 plus visits to Ireland, I was off to the North West corner of Ireland, DONEGAL, for the very first time, and a visit to a club with a fairly recent past but an exciting future.
Using my EURAIL PASS, still good from my EURO 2008 adventures, I took the Rail Ireland train up to Sligo, as far as it travels, and then the bus up the west coast with the Bay of Donegal on my left, with its sandy inlets, sea birds of all kind, anglers, cockel pickers, horse riders in the surf, and surfers, while on the right were the mountains and flocks of sheep and on the lower slopes cattle of various colours and designs. We passed through resorts, such as Bundoran and Ballyshannon until the town square of Donegal Town, and a rest at the Abbey Hotel.
Then it was another half hour through the glens to BALLYBOFEY on the River Finn, just 5 miles to the border with Northern Ireland. I was curious why there was an Eircom League of Ireland, www.eircomloi.ie club so far from Dublin, where half the clubs are situated. It didn't take long to find out as I was welcomed by the recent Chairman John Campbell, who resigned the honorary post a year ago to work full time promoting and raising funds for the club-'The New Boys on the Block' To find out more I was introduced to PATSY MCGOWAN and MICHAEL GALLAGHER.
Patsy is the reason why Finn Harps are Donegal's only professional sports club. I was honoured when he presented me with, and autographed, a copy of his book, 'The Strings of my Harps', the story of how his vision and perseverence got the job done. Half a century ago the League of Ireland had 12 clubs in its top division, and Patsy was determined to join the league. He went to F.A.I. headquarters in Merrion Square, my favourite of all the Georgian squares in the capital, and asked to join. He was told that first his club, which he has coached on 3 separate spells, should do well as a Junior (not youth) but amateur club, as a first step and enter the cup for Juniors. Well, NO SUPRISE, they won it. After politicking with the other clubs the league was expanded to 14 and they were finally welcomed in 1969.
Letterkenny, 10 miles north, half way to Londonderry(Derry City) is twice the size but less ambitious, as were other towns. Finn Park is on the River Finn, across the very busy Main Street from the GAA Gaelic Games stadium, MacCumhall Park with its much bigger floodlights and stands. They have had 6,000 pack Finn Park, which is now 'passed its sell date' but next year and across the river they will start construction on a state-of-the art all seater stadium. At the moment the club is battling relegation after a 5-0 drubbing last weekend, so the visit of Cork City meant a lot in the struggle to survive the top table. I also chatted with Michael, who is a postman and one of many 'salt of the earth' volunteer stewards and gate keepers that keep the club going with their passion and hard work.
Michael has been a supporter and worker for many years and loves 'the beautiful game' and can't wait for a home fixture. The Harps pay their players an average of around 500 Euros a week,and are full time professionals, while Cork City have one player earning 4,000 Euros a week, and have good home support and sponsorship. In a bid to bring the community on board, the club allows free entry for up to 12 years olds, but really anyone a couple of years older can get to watch for nothing. There were hundreds of youngsters and the 'American Popcorn' cart was doing a great trade at 2 Euros for a small, and 3 Euros for a medium bag.
Despite 2 key defenders out injured, coach Paul Haggerty was looking for at least a point. They started out with their blue jerseys almost overwhelming the light green of City, spreading the game out to create space. However after 33 minutes things went wrong. Twice in a minute referee Rob Winter allowed Cork City a free kick and then a penalty for what I thought was 'play acting'. He looks the part - tall, fit, clear signals and a shaven head like the great Italian referee Colina, but his officiating was more like Fellini,the also great deceased avante-garde film director.
After that The Harps, lost their strings and started to go down hill, couldn't penetrate, and were lucky to lose only 1-0. As the official left the field to many boos, one fan threw a bottle that almost hit Winter who doesn't deserve such a thing. It will cost the club about 1,000 Euros and they are trying to identify and ban for life the thrower. 'We have a zero tolerance', said John Campbell as he drove me back to The Abbey Hotel to await the 2.00am night bus to Dublin.
It was quite a pleasant wait as I sat in the large bar and listened to the 5 woman all girl band 'Screaming Eagles' playing everything from Irish tunes, such as Donegal, to West Virginia and Sweet Caroline with their super fast fiddler a crowd favourite. Straight out onto the street aftter I had finished my Bulmers Cider and the bus was ready for the 4 hour trip with me and just 5 others picked up en route.