On this day....Finn Harps won a cup final, but what one was it?

Goalkeeper Gavin Cullen recalls the evening that the Donegal club lifted some silverware

On this day....Finn Harps won a cup final, but what one was it?

Finn Harps captain Declan Boyle receives the cup from Irish News marketing executive, Brendan Kerr, while John McCrossan of the North West Football Association looks on

The Finn Harps trophy cabinet is hardly bulging with silverware, but the club does have the distinction of winning one of the cross-border competitions that have come and gone over the past 50 years or so.

On April 29th, 1999, another chapter was written in the history of the Donegal club as they lifted the Irish News Cup, having defeated Ballymena United 2-0 in the final at Finn Park, Ballybofey.

Since being founded in 1954, Harps have won just four cups as a senior club - and it’s fair to say that even the most ardent fans would struggle to correctly name the competitions and the year in which the trophies were won.

Harps’ biggest ever triumph remains their 1974 FAI Cup Final win over St. Patrick’s Athletic.

Yes, they won the First Division title in 2004 and the FAI Junior Cup way back in 1968, but their other cup wins were all in competitions that are now defunct.

Their first cup of note was the Dublin City Cup, which they won in 1972, having beaten Cork Hibernians 1-0 in the final at Dalymount Park, thanks to a goal from the legendary Brendan Bradley.

Despite its name, this competition was played for by all League of Ireland sides from 1933 to 1973 (and it was briefly revived in 1975/76 and 1983/84).

After the 1974 FAI Cup triumph - the highlight of a decade that saw the Ballybofey based club finishing as League of Ireland runners-up in 1972/73, 1975/76 and 1977/78 - their next cup final glory did not come until that Irish News Cup triumph of 1999.

The competition, sponsored by the Irish News, was made up of sides from the north west, and ran for four seasons, with Coleraine, Derry City and Omagh Town being victors before Harps won it.

Goalkeeper Gavin Cullen was on the Harps side that overcame Ballymena.

“It was on a Thursday night,” he recalls, before the last home match of the Premier Division campaign against a Dundalk side that had already been relegated! How times have changed.

Harps had largely used their reserve team for the Irish News Cup. Cullen was the hero in the quarter-final against Coleraine. Little wonder he remembers it. 

“I made four penalty saves in the shoot-out,” he says.

Harps then beat a near full-strength Derry CIty side 2-0 in the Brandywell in the semi-final.

Cullen, just 18,  retained the goalkeeper’s jersey for the final, but manager Charlie McGeever brought in some of the big guns, including Paddy McGrenaghan and Fergal Harkin (who both scored), Declan Boyle, Jonathan Minnock and Jonathan Speak.

And while there were celebrations afterwards, the significance of the victory was overshadowed somewhat by other thoughts at the time, namely the prospect of a FAI Cup Final.

Harps beat Dundalk 1-0 to finish fourth in the Premier Division at the end of the 1998/99 season, above rivals Derry City, but just missing out on a European place.

Cullen watched on as Harps were beaten by Bray Wanderers in the second replay of the FAI Cup.

First Division Cup

Since capturing the Irish News Cup, Harps only other cup final win was the 2002 First Division Cup, which turned out to be a one-season wonder!

Cullen remains a big supporter of cross-border competitions. “There’s a big interest in them, especially in the north-west,” he maintains. 

“If they brought a north-west cup back it would be a very good competition. I think there would be more interest in Finn Harps playing Coleraine or Ballymena than playing Limerick of UCD.”

Other cross-border competitions, including the Blaxnit Cup (sponsored by a  sock and hosiery manufacturer based in Newtownards), the Texaco Cup, and the Setanta Sports Cup have all been short-lived, as was the Tyler Cup - a competition that saw Harps losing out to Shamrock Rovers in the final in 1978-79.

Last year, Dundalk and Linfield played in the Unite the Union Cup. No doubt, future competitions will happen.

In the meantime, Harps’ roll of honour - while not taking up much space - still proudly boasts that the Irish News Cup rested in Finn Park in its final season, back in 1999.

Photo: Finn Harps captain Declan Boyle receives the Irish News Cup from the Irish News marketing executive, Brendan Kerr, while John McCrossan of the North West Football Association looks on. Photo courtesy of The Irish News, Belfast

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