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Community, connection, soul (and soup) – Still grounds for hope at Harps

It certainly hasn’t been a vintage year for Finn Harps on the pitch. Losing their manager in recent days and resting near the foot of the table. But according to new club secretary, Rory White, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. And in this article he argues why “local graft is worth more than Premier League billions.”

I am coming close to the end of my first season as Secretary of Finn Harps Football Club. The role is a very busy one and it has been a steep learning curve, but it has also been a real eye-opener for me. Before this season, I would have been classified as a casual enough follower of the Harps. I live within walking distance of the ground and attended around half the home games each season. Alongside this, I also followed Manchester United since I was a young boy. I was reared watching those Irish players in red playing across the water like McGrath, Moran, Stapleton and Whiteside in the 1980’s and later enjoyed the success-laden years with Keane and Irwin as the lynchpins. As a young lad, mad into football, I had felt a connection, it all seemed relatable. 

In recent years I have been drifting slowly away from the Premier League ‘product’ (and no, before some might think it is due to Utd becoming a basket case of a club, it’s not that!) The dearth of Irish players in the English topflight, coinciding with the arrival of aloof billionaire owners, shady Russian oligarchs and more recently the Gulf oil states into the league, has ‘sports-washed’ away any sense of connection that I once had. It’s all become obscene and there’s nothing much Irish about it anymore.

The deeply embedded football fan within me found myself preferring to tune into fly-on-the-wall series’ such as Sunderland til I die and Welcome to Wrexham. These became much more enjoyable than watching Match of the Day where City would again hit five or six past their latest victims on their inevitable march towards yet another title. 

I started to think about why I enjoyed these series so much. I soon realised that it was the more wholesome nature of the clubs and what they mean to their local communities. Of course, these were edited TV programmes, but there was no denying the connection between the clubs and the people. From those who work tirelessly in the background to keep the clubs going, to the fans in the stands and on the terraces who turn up week in, week out to support ‘their’ team. It is captivating stuff and it’s brilliant the way the producers captured all the ups and the downs, the hope and the heartbreak, the passion of the fans and, more importantly, the soul of the game.

Finn Harps secretary, Rory White.

For me, and I suspect many more football people, the Premier League lost its soul long ago. Many of the players now become millionaires long before they have really merited it. The role models seem to be very few and far between. Our own Seamus Coleman is a rare enough exception. Apart from his impressive career, Seamus is just a fantastic ambassador for his club, but more importantly, for Irish and Donegal football. We are all excited with the emergence of Evan Ferguson now at Brighton and are pinning our hopes on him to produce for our national team. Other Irish players can be found in lower-half teams such as Sheffield Utd, Burnley and Luton but you wouldn’t need much more than one hand to count the number of our players plying their trade in the top flight now. This is a serious contrast to previously when the likes of Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal boasted half of their first team from these shores. 

There are unfortunately plenty of examples of anti-role models. From sexual abuse to gambling to racism and various other spats, the millionaire playboys often seem to do what they like. Big betting companies adorn the jersey fronts of lots of teams and their adverts run constantly before, after and even during the games. There seems to be no end to the greed of the elite. 

This is all in stark contrast to what I have experienced after almost a year on the inside of Finn Harps and the League of Ireland. I was initially drawn into the role because I knew several of the board personally, I respect their integrity and I knew I could work with them in trying to develop the club. 

The many strings of Finn Harps

What I have since discovered is a truly inspiring community of fantastic people who volunteer their time and energy to the club, asking for nothing in return only the feeling of doing their bit for the Harps. There are too many to name individually and none would be looking for praise by naming them here. Behind the scenes, there are those in the offices, at the turnstiles and gates, those who work on the ground and on the tannoy, the scanners and the stewards, the underage coaches and the academy staff. So many men, women and young people all putting their shoulders to the wheel. Almost a full season in and I am still learning. There are so many facets to the club. There is so much to do and it’s being done by the best of folk, week in, week out. Volunteerism at its best. It’s relentless and it’s challenging. It’s wholesome and it’s satisfying.

Our young local players who have broken into the first team over the past couple of seasons. That’s what it’s all about for me. The progression from Academy to First team, it’s a joy to watch. Sitting their Leaving Certs and college exams one day and scoring against Longford, Treaty or St Pats the next. These talented lads come from all over Donegal and are working hard to be the best that they can be, to hopefully be the next Seamie.

The Harps community continues to grow. There is so much great work done at each and every home game, welcoming young local teams from all over the county, the mascots and flag-bearers. Local charities, local sponsors and local football fans. The Harps diaspora watching on faithfully from far-flung corners of the UK, the US and further afield. They might be far from home but the connection to the club and their community is just as strong. 

Our two new women’s teams have been a fantastic recent addition to the club. The atmosphere at their first game in Finn Park a number of weeks ago was a joy to behold and there’ll be many more occasions like this, and bigger. The girls are here to stay, women’s football is on the up, and Finn Harps will continue to survive and thrive.

Our soup is better than your soup. 

This is a proud motto of the club. It is part of the Twitter bio and a fan-designed sticker is slowly spreading the word at various points across the world, so keep an eye out! Our soup is better than your soup pays homage to the beautiful broth that many Friday night match-goers look forward to at half-time in Finn Park. But it’s not a motto, it’s a metaphor. Our product is better than theirs. Our game has more soul than theirs. Our soup is better than your soup.

On the pitch it hasn’t been a vintage year as far as results are concerned, that’s for certain. However, despite this, our crowds have remained impressively high. There have been plenty of positives. There is a real yearning for Harps to do well. The fans crave success. There are so many hotbeds of support around the northwest. Older fans who were there when the club entered the league in 1969 and for the cup final win in 1974, 50 years ago this coming April. The children of these early followers who were simply born into it, and the grandchildren who are almost in a wee replica kit before they leave the hospital.

I couldn’t be sure how many League of Ireland clubs have come and gone over the years, but there have been plenty. Several of the so-called bigger clubs, many with large city catchments such as Derry, Cork, Limerick and Galway, have sunk and resurfaced as different versions of their original selves. While other well-established clubs such as Kilkenny City, Monaghan Utd and Home Farm have disappeared and never come back. Yet Finn Harps, in little old Ballybofey in Co. Donegal, have remained steadfast. We are fully owned and financed by our fans, and we have no wealthy backers. It is all thanks to the graft and sheer bloody-mindedness of so many legendary Harps folk over the years and to the wonderfully loyal fan base who are proud of their club.

A bright, exciting future is now finally within reach

As a club, we have been working incredibly hard behind the scenes to get our badly needed new stadium delivered for both our fans and our teams. Years and years of countless meetings and setbacks, economic crashes, Covid and severe inflation have all thrown different-sized spanners into the project. Yet still, that dogged Harps spirit refuses to bow. We have been blessed with a tireless stadium committee who have continued to persevere on behalf of the club. 

Almost €5million in funding has been secured after a phenomenal effort from that team and their predecessors. However, to unlock this funding we must raise €700k ourselves. A large figure, but not an impossible one. Sure it’s only about a week’s wage for an ageing footballer playing in a desert. €200k will unlock some of the funding and get the diggers back onto the site in just a few short months. The next €500k will deliver the rest and will finally get a stadium built for the people of Donegal and the northwest. Our fans are the owners, they are our investors and can secure the future of our club. 

Our plans are almost finished, and initiatives will soon be launched. A call will go out to all football fans to help us with our final push. More collective shoulders to the wheel. Then maybe, just maybe if wee Finn Harps (who are turning the grand old age of 70 in 2024 by the way) can get it done, then other League of Ireland clubs with similar needs to our own, might finally get facilities that their own loyal fans deserve. 

The football communities of all the League of Ireland clubs are incredibly passionate about their teams and where they come from. Attendances across the league are on the rise, something is happening. It can’t just be me who has finally started to wake up to this new reality? 

In a similar way, GAA clubs across the country are very important elements of their parish. The strength of the GAA lies in the strong ties between the club and the community. Fair play to them. Finn Harps also have a massive community. Our reach extends far and wide. Our club and our brand are synonymous with where we come from. Harps people are staunchly proud of their local club, they support us avidly and in many different ways.  

Our plans for the near future don’t stop at the new stadium. We are looking to expand as a club. We want to introduce education into what we do. We want to train more coaches both from our club and from clubs around Donegal. We give careers talks to our players to ensure they are aware of the many pathways that they can take in life both in and away from football. This is so important. I used to be that young man myself, dreaming of making a living in football, until serious injury intervened and then I was thankful that I had my education to fall back on.

Friday nights on Navenny Street mean something to an awful lot of people. The football community of Donegal are proud that Finn Harps have been representing the county in the League of Ireland since way back in 1969. They deserve this to continue for many more years to come and to thrive in a modern, top-class facility just across the river Finn in the new stadium. Think of the atmosphere when we get there. Taste the soup. Feel the connection with the players. It’ll be some job sir! Experience the real soul of football, right here in Donegal. UTH