Finn Harps are scoring both on and off the pitch at the moment — and there’s a real sense of optimism at the Donegal club, with plans for a new stadium finally forging ahead at a time when Ollie Horgan’s team look well capable of avoiding the relegation scramble.
You have to go right back to the 1998/99 season to find Finn Harps finishing in the top four in the Premier Division.
But such a target is not out of bounds for the current side who currently share top spot. Taking in the tail end of last season, they have now only lost once in 12 league games — and that was against Shamrock Rovers.
Horgan has moulded a strong outfit and is very much involved behind the scenes too in the masterplan to catapult the club into a new era.
The long-running saga over Finn Harps’ plans to move into a new stadium is back on track — and the Donegal club now hopes to be playing in their new 5,400 capacity ground when the 2024 season commences.
There has been no shortage of false dawns in relation to the stadium project, with plans first hatched almost 20 years ago.
But the recent announcement by the Department for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, of a provisional allocation of €3.991m to the FAI under the Large Scale Sport Infrastructure Fund (LSSIF) for the development the ground should mean that the long-held dream actually becomes a reality.
Even some of the most ardent of Harps fans had given up on the project ever being completed, and it’s not hard to see why.
Initial planning permission was approved way back in 2005.
An RTÉ report at the time noted that “Harps are hoping that monies raised from the sale of Finn Park will be used to finance the new stadium which is likely to cost in the region of €6m plus.”
It added that work could get underway before the summer “although it could be two seasons before Harps are actually playing in their new home.”
There have since been more twists and turns than there are in the River Finn which separates the towns of Ballybofey — where the club has played at Finn Park since entering the League of Ireland in 1969 — and Stranorlar, where the new stadium site is, less than a kilometre away.
The first sod for the new ground was turned in May 2008. This followed a complex deal hammered out after negotiations involving several parties, including the Trustees of Finn Park, Donegal Co. Council, a local mart, a local developer, and with the FAI backing the project.
A state grant of €750,000 was provided to get the ball rolling. Part of the plan was that the developer would acquire Finn Park for a mixed-use development, with the proceeds going towards the whole project.
But that was before the crash at the end of the Celtic Tiger era. With the property market collapsing and the economy nosediving, the project was stalled.
Harps kept plugging away behind the scenes, and some drip-feeding of grants kept the project on life-support.
Virtually no work has taken place since 2016.
But with more than €1million having been ploughed into the project — including basic site preparation and the construction of the shell of the main stand — there were concerns that this could end up as a sheer waste of money.
A small project team has worked tirelessly in the background to keep the project alive.
In the last few years, it was coordinated by the former Chief Executive of North West Tourism, Paul McLoone.
Expressing delight with the funding announcement, he stated: “Our intention is to be playing in the new stadium for the 2024 season.”
The grant will equate to around 70% of the total cost of developing the new stadium, which will be known as the Donegal Community Stadium. The other 30% will come from loans, fundraising, and other initiatives.
Phase one will see the completion of the main stand with 1,900 seats, changing rooms and offices, the laying of a new pitch and the installation of floodlights.
The second phase will see a stand built with 1,700 seats, followed by the development of terracing for 900 spectators at either end. The total capacity will be 5,400, down from the original planned 6,600 all-seater — and the final price will also come in at less than the €9 million mentioned in the early years of the project.
"It is for the people of Donegal, not Finn Harps," McLoone said. "It is my vision and my passion that we do it right, or not at all. It is time the League of Ireland stepped up to the plate. We need leadership from the FAI as well that the vision of Finn Harps is a model for the rest of the country.
“If we are to develop young players, and look at the international team now, we need a better standard League of Ireland.”
It has now emerged that Harps will be keeping Finn Park.
Harps, like all League of Ireland clubs, will have to field a team in the Women’s National League in the next few years — and the home for the Harps women’s teams will be Finn Park.
The club’s growing academy, under legendary striker Kevin McHugh, will also use the Ballybofey ground.
McLoone confirmed that the club has applied for funding to re-seed the playing surface and for the floodlights to be upgraded.
He stressed how Harps have to be positive and ambitious in the development of proper facilities that will enable them to match those in other locations around the country.
Gone are the days when Harps fielded a first team, and maybe just a reserve or under-21 team. The club is developing for the long-term and now has 35 qualified or about to be qualified coaches.
There are now Harps underage players from all over the county. The club’s schools programme has involved 6,800 boys and girls playing football.
“It is our ambition as a club to have four or five pitches including the stadium and the old Finn Park, because we will have 16 teams in total when the ladies’ teams come on board," McLoone added.
Outdated Finn Park has attracted considerable bad press in recent years. Currently, it has only around 300 seats and the club has received several derogations to be allowed play in the Premier Division.
Last season, due to Covid-19 requirements, Harps had to raise in the region of €30,000 to get new portable dressing rooms for the side to change in. The tiny existing clubhouse was deemed totally inadequate.
Now, the club sees the new stadium as a catalyst to propel it into a new era.
Challenges remain, but hopes are high that the opportunity will be grasped to ensure that Harps remain very much on the League of Ireland map.