Finn Harps

Derry rivals and generous Euro opponents of yore

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

A long-lost romantic name on the European football scene, fan-owned Finn Harps are from Ballybofey, with a supporter base across County Donegal.

Though it’s been a while since the likes of Derby and Everton notched up double-digit aggregate scores against them, the Harps are at least back in the top flight. In 2015, dramatic late winning goals, first against UCD, then after extra-time against Limerick, gained the Donegal side a first promotion in eight years.

Finn Park/L Price

The setting for these victories was run-down Finn Park, the club’s home since before the glory days. It is hoped that in another eight years, any future triumphs will take place at the new stadium being built over the river Finn at Stranorlar, Ballybofey’s adjoining community that forms half of the Twin Towns.

The club joined the League of Ireland in 1969. Before then, the Harps, formed in 1954, were a prominent junior side. A desire to have a presence in Donegal may have swayed the LoI to allow for the club’s inclusion – the first match was a 10-2 stomping by Shamrock Rovers.

Many feared the worst but not Brendan Bradley. The club’s new signing from soon-to-be rivals Derry for that debut season, Bradley helped the Harps become the third highest scoring club in the division, his tally of 18 putting him top of the individual charts. The following season, he went two better as an attacking, adventurous Finn Harps outscored everyone.

Finn Park/L Price

Old hand Terry Harkin was just turning 30 when he arrived at Finn Park after prolific spells at Southport and Shrewsbury. Though his brief Northern Ireland career was over – Harkin’s two goals in Turkey almost helped send George Best to a World Cup finals – the Derry-born striker had enough in his locker to outwit many a domestic defence.

This was when Finn Harps hit their peak. Bradley was back after trying his luck with Lincoln and Finn Harps were firing on all cylinders. In 1974, a brace from Bradley allowed the club to lift its first silverware, the FAI Cup, with a 3-1 win over St Pat’s.

In the league, the Harps shipped too many goals – 50 as opposed to 12 conceded by champions Bohemians two places above them in 1975. A runners-up spot in 1976, Bradley netting 29 – two more than Shamrock Rovers all season – was followed by another in 1978.

Finn Park/L Price

In Europe, the defences of Aberdeen, Derby and Everton were used to the likes of Kenny Dalglish and Joe Jordan rather than Terry Harkin and Brendan Bradley. The gulf in class was reflected in aggregate scores of 7-2, 16-1 and 10-0.

The departure of manager Patsy McGowan in 1979, taking Bradley and other key players with him, signalled the end of a golden decade. Ten years before, few have put Harps down as becoming Ireland’s most exciting side.

League form duly suffered and the club never returned to Europe. Every season became either a struggle to stay up or return to the top tier. McGowan came back twice but Finn Harps had lost their mojo.

Finn Park/L Price

In a positive move, in the late 1990s the club became a co-operative, with accent on youth development. With a teenage Kevin McHugh bursting through as a prolific prospect, Harps showed great promise in 1998-99, finishing fourth in the league and coming very close to a first FAI Cup for 25 years. Leading Bray Wanderers after a twice-replayed final, the Ballybofey side ran out of steam at a crucial point in the deciding fixture.

Jonathan Speak, the veteran striker whose goal gave Harps’ fans hope in that fateful third game, was soon installed as player-manager. Galvanising the relegation-bound team and persuading McHugh to stay on board, Speak’s side battled put together strings of wins as Finn Park found its voice again. Harps then lost two particularly cruel promotion play-offs, first to Longford Town – conceding a stoppage-time penalty to take the game to spot-kicks, then 6-5 – and the second to north-west rivals Derry. Both games went to extra-time.

The club eventually gained promotion under Felix Healy in 2004 but the one-time Derry legend failed to keep the team up, a yo-yo pattern repeated in 2007 and 2008.

After two years at rivals Derry, the prolific McHugh returned in 2010 to see out his career at Finn Park. At 35, he was still the club’s top scorer for the dramatic campaign of 2015, Finn Park witnessing two last-gasp play-off wins, first against UCD then Limerick, before a 3,000-plus crowd.

ground Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

Old-school Finn Park is a short walk from Main Street, where the buses come in. The ground is effectively one main stand, partly filled with seating, allocated to all spectators except in cases such as the derby with Derry or any play-off game.

Around the main stand are open sides – if segregation is required, then away fans stand in the uncovered River End and/or Gantry Side opposite the main stand. Some home fans still like to occupy the narrow section of open terracing at the Town End, backed by residential housing.

getting there

Getting to the ground – tips and timings

Buses from Letterkenny, Donegal, Sligo and Derry pull in at McElhineys store/Butt Hall Centre on Main Street. Head for the Villa Rose Hotel then turn next left down Navenny Street. The ground is about 200 yards on the left.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

The club has a simple policy of pay-on-the-night from the gates on both Navenny Street and Chestnut Road. It’s €12 in, €10 for over-65s and students, €5 for secondary pupils and €3 for under-12s. If you’d like a seat, then it’s an extra €3 once you’re inside.

There are no online sales.

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

A modest selection of blue-and-white souvenirs is available from the portakabin outlet near the home Town End on match nights.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

With Finn Park so close to Main Street, and Ballybofey so compact, any of the half-dozen pubs and bars in town is a handy stroll pre- and post-match.

The two nearest Finn Park, on Navenny Street itself, are also the most convivial choices. The first one you come to, Heeney’s U Drop Inn, has been family-run for the best part of 60 years. Today Michael runs a tidy but eminently friendly ship, part bar, part restaurant, with an extensive menu featuring chargrilled burgers and steaks, and framed photos from Finn Harps history around the large flat-screen TV.

Further down, right by the ground, the ever popular Barca Bar has been serving Harps and away fans for years, a lively, honest drinking haunt with occasional live acts and a superfriendly staff.

Any visit to Finn Park is not complete without sampling its famous soup, dispensed from beside the clubhouse by the main stand. There’s more hot food available at the Gantry Side – handy for away fans exposed to the elements.