Finn Park, Ballybofey
Finn Harps are facing an unusual kind of pressure as they begin their SSE Airtricity League Premier Division campaign this Saturday against Bohemians at Finn Park.
Following a great run of results in the second half of last season - which ultimately saw them avoiding relegation and finishing in eight spot, their highest league finish in 20 years - the Donegal club are expected by many to kick-on this season.
Manager Ollie Horgan has made a number of notable signings and rather than being widely regarded as one of the underdogs, the expectation is that the Ballybofey outfit stand a decent chance of finishing above a number of other teams.
But Horgan cautioned: “Time will tell whether we have a stronger squad than last season.”
This is his eighth season in charge of the Finn Park side, and he is currently the longest serving manager of any League of Ireland club.
He has made considerable play of the added geographic and financial hurdles that Harps must negotiate and has revelled in frequently proving the pundits wrongs. During his reign, Harps have won two promotion play-offs against the odds and have twice avoided relegation despite being favourites for the drop on both occasions.
As was the case for all clubs, pre-season had added complications due to the Covid-19 related restrictions.
But Harps have made some notable additions to their squad, not least American midfielder Will Seymor (ex-Sligo Rovers), and strikers Ryan Shanley (on loan from Hibernian) as well as Belgian Tunde Owolabi, who was previously with Scottish Premiership side Hamilton Academical.
Owolabi scored 35 goals in 41 games with FC United of Manchester in the 2019/2020 season and Horgan is hoping that he can recapture that form and boost the Harps’ attack.
Defensively, Harps appear in fairly good shape; it will be adding to their goals for column that will be the chief task this season. No player scored more than three league goals last season although it was only an 18 game season, compared with 36 this time around).
Towards the end of last season, former Newry Town player Adam Foley made a big impact up front for Harps - scoring in two crucial home games that they won in the final month.
With Shanley, Owolabi and Karl O’Sullivan as well, there appear to be more options this time around.
Asked about what strikeforce we may see, Horgan would only say: “We tried all sorts of combinations pre-season.”
And it is likely that the formation will be tinkered with quite a bit in the opening games.
While former captain Gareth Harkin has not been re-signed, and Sam Todd has gone to UCD (on a scholarship), there have been fewer departures than in recent seasons.
The general consensus is that, on paper, Harps look to have enough this year to finish above the two promoted sides, Drogheda United and Longford Town, and possibly one or two more teams.
But it’s a tough opening for Harps, with a trip to Dundalk following the Bohemians game.
“Bohs were third in 2019 and runners-up last year. There is no doubt in the world where they want to be,” Horgan said.
Interestingly, he makes the point about how under Keith Long, Bohs have made steady progress. “Five or six years ago they were not far off relegation, but they have gradually improved step by step,” he noted.
Harps could well be a lower down the table version of Bohemians. Twenty-one years ago Harps finished fourth. That is surely beyond them, but to finish seventh overall - up one place - would indeed be a further steady progression.
The match will be played behind closed doors but is online at watchloi.ie. Kick-off is 6.00 pm.
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