“Go back to the bog”: Football in Donegal and the birth of Finn Harps
In 1969, Finn Harps of Ballybofey were elected to the League of Ireland. That alone was a shock, but what followed was unprecedented.
When Jim Sheridan led his Finn Harps teammates onto the pitch for the 1974 FAI Cup Final, he had no fear of the challenge which lay before them.
“There was a buzz around the team,” Jim explains, 47 years after the match.
“I knew we had the fire power to win.”
That final was the peak of a rural, guerrilla football culture bred in Ireland’s North West, amongst the mountains and beaches of the rugged but beautiful Donegal.
Just five years previous, the Harps, based in the small town of Ballybofey, had been accepted into the League of Ireland amidst a choir of criticism from journalists and footballing officials.
They were seen as being too small to compete, too far away to be worth the travel and too likely to go bust within a few years.
Yet from the club’s move into league football to the ’74 cup final and its modern-day survival, Finn Harps have always made a point of defying the odds.
A Forgotten People
Sandwiched between the Northern Irish border and the Atlantic Ocean, Donegal only directly connects to the rest of the Republic for just roughly six miles along its southern border.
Amongst its sparsely spread population, there is a belief the county is consistently overlooked politically and economically, fostering a long-held feeling of isolation from, and oftentimes resentment towards, the rest of the island.
“I’ve always felt that we’re up there in the North and we don’t get our fair slice of the political pie,” Jim, who now lives in nearby Sligo, explains.
“The government spend money all around the country and I always felt we were isolated from it.”
Bartley Ramsay, the Finn Harps club historian, agrees.
“There was a slogan a couple years ago- ‘Donegal, up here we’re different’ and it captures it perfectly,” Bartley says.
“I’ve never met a person from Donegal who isn’t proud of being from Donegal. There’s a huge pride in the county, and I think that’s the driver for a lot of things.”
One of those things was the push for league football in the county.
A “Weird” football culture
Football in Donegal, in Bartley’s words, “was weird” in the 50s and 60s.
Whilst the rest of Ireland was focussed on the League of Ireland, the highest level of football in the country, Donegal’s focus was on its series of summer cups whose high cash prizes often attracted senior players from Scotland and England who played alongside locals.
“There were crowds of maybe three or four thousand,” Bartley explains.
“These summer cups were every night of the week, so if you were a good player you could play in a different town every night.
“The boys who played in the early years for Harps came up through this system.”
Jim was one such player.
“I had no dreams of playing anything else. The objective, the dream, was to play for the local team in the summer cups,” he says.
The League dream
Ireland has two main levels of football; junior teams, also known as non-league, play in regional competitions while senior teams play in the national League of Ireland with no relegation or promotion between the two systems.
There was little impetus within Donegal for League football, but that changed when Donegal native Patsy McGowan returned in 1967 from working in England.
“I saw the crowds in the summer cups and I knew we had to get league football in Donegal,” Patsy explains, speaking from his home.
It was expected that Swilly Rovers or Buncrana Hearts, the two most established junior sides in the county, would eventually make the jump to league football but Patsy had dreams of bringing it to the most unlikely of places; his hometown of Ballybofey.
“I was from Ballybofey: there was no point me working for Swilly Rovers or Buncrana Hearts,” Patsy says.
“The other clubs sort of laughed at the idea of league football being in Ballybofey.”
They laughed for good reason. Regarded as a small farming town, the 1966 census records that it was home to no more than 2000 at the time, but Bartley points out that the town had a close attachment to sport.
“The town is clear mad,” he says, laughing.
“There was a whole district football association to run one summer cup competition in Ballybofey.
“When I was doing research, I even found there was a cricket league with teams for all the different streets.”
Formed in 1953, Finn Harps was one of the teams in the town. Named after the River Finn that divides Ballybofey from neighbouring Stranorlar, it had little ambition until Patsy embarked on his plan to turn it into a League of Ireland outfit.
“The key move I made was writing to the secretary of the FAI whose wife was from Donegal,” Patsy explains.
“He explained I had to get a team in the Junior Cup and go from there.”
Patsy did more than that, recruiting a talented side of locals and players from nearby Derry, most of whom he knew from growing up and playing in the summer cups.
Far from just enter the Junior Cup, the Finn Harps team won the 1968 competition with Patsy as player-manager.
Hopes of joining the league were dashed when the side failed to get out of the first stage of the following year’s Intermediate Cup, but Patsy and others decided they would not give up on the dream of league football.
They applied to the FAI regardless and, over the following months, Patsy travelled the country, lobbying clubs to vote them into the league.
A seemingly audacious plan, it worked, and Harps were officially elected to the League of Ireland later that year.
“I honestly think most of the clubs voted us in because they thought we would finish bottom every time,” Patsy remembers.
Immediately the decision was met with utter disbelief from journalists and spectators outside of the Ulster county.
“One of the journalists at the time said, ‘my god, they’ve elected a team that only has two players, a set of goalposts and a bog of a pitch’, ” Bartley says.
Patsy, always quick with a witty response, told him exactly what he thought of such a view.
“’We have more than that,” Patsy recalls telling him.
“We have ambition.”
As much as Patsy had ambition, the journalist was not far from the truth and criticism of the decision only increased when the Harps played their first game in August of 1969, losing 10–2 to Shamrock Rovers.
“The first match was a disaster,” Patsy admits.
“One man said to me I had made a mistake and we would be bottom by the end of the season.
“But I told him we’d be in Europe in four seasons.”
He was right.
Harps finished 7th out of 14 in their debut season, a strong campaign that few had anticipated.
Regularly playing in front of crowds of 7000 with spectators coming from all over Donegal, they finished sixth in the 70/71 season, fourth after that and came runners up in 72/73 season, qualifying for the UEFA cup.
Jim, a Donegal native, had joined up with the squad in its second season after leaving Dublin-side St Patrick’s Athletic.
“There was pride in going back and representing Donegal,” he says.
“I knew they were a progressive team, and I was excited to go back.”
With players like Jim, Brendan Bradley (who would go on to become the all-time leading goal scorer in the League of Ireland) and former Northern Ireland international Tony O’Doherty, Harps consistently exceeded expectations.
“We were progressive in the way we played football,” Jim explains.
“The team was a proper footballing team; our objective was to score goals as opposed to nowadays where it seems the aim is to not concede.”
An impressive cup run saw the side reach the 1974 FAI Cup Final, Ireland’s equivalent of the FA cup.
A packed crowd of 14,000 witnessed Harps claim victory, two goals from Bradley and another from Charlie Ferry securing a famous 3–1 win.
“I was usually one of the cooler fellas,” Jim says, audibly smiling.
“But when the pitch was invaded, and I met Patsy, that was it. You’d have had to have been made of stone not to feel something.
“We had only been in the league for five years or so and all the pundits had said we’d never survive, but we did and we went and won the cup, it was a great feeling.”
The cup remains Harps’ only major success but they would finish runners-up in the league on another two occasions in the 70s, appearing in Europe four times.
The 80s would not be so successful, with the club falling into midtable obscurity before relegation to the newly formed First Division in 1985 and remains a yo-yo club in the modern day.
But while the extraordinary success of the 70s may never be matched, the glory of 1974 still sits forefront in the mind of the club, even if it didn’t change everyone’s view.
“We were having a meal in Dublin after we’d won,” Patsy remembers.
“And some fella said to me ‘Go back to the bog where you belong’.
“I said we will, but the cup’s coming as well!”