Finn Harps are on the verge of the most radical shake-up in the club’s history - not only are things looking good for the long awaited moving to a new stadium but their Finn Park ground is now set to get a new lease of life as well.
Finn Park will continue to be used for soccer, after the first team moves to the new Donegal Community Stadium in Stranorlar, it has emerged.
Harps, like all League of Ireland clubs, will have to field a team in the Women’s National League in the next few years. In fact, it is envisaged that there will be underage female teams at the same national levels as in the men’s game.
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 Finn Park.
Plans are being advanced to upgrade Finn Park - despite the club’s big move to Stranorlar.
Harps have applied for funding to re-seed the playing surface at Finn Park and for the floodlights to be upgraded. It is envisaged that other works will also follow.
Speaking to Donegal Live, Harps director Paul McLoone 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.
McLoone - who has been the driving force behind the stadium project in recent years - pointed out that in a few years time Harps will be fielding 16 teams at various age groups, ranging from under-13s to the seniors in various FAI National Leagues, as well as having an academy. There could be up to five female teams.
In effect, it is all part of a masterplan to catapult the club forward into a new era. 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 this is borne out by the fact that it now has 35 qualified or about to be qualified coaches. Big things are happening behind the scenes, and there are now Harps underage players from all over the county.
“If you are trying to get it right on the pitch, you need to get it right off the pitch,” he said.
His comments come just days after the club got the news that a grant of almost €4 million has been provisionally approved for the new stadium project. This will equate to around 70% of the cost.
The club will be exploring various avenues to raise the other 30%. As well as loans and draws, various fundraising initiatives will be examining ranging from advance seat sales, to schemes like “buy a block” or “name on the wall” initiatives. Naming or fresh sponsorship deals could also emerge.
With the development of the club, and so many teams, there will also be opportunities for more branding.
The new Donegal Community Stadium will have a 5,400 capacity.
McLoone re-iterated that it is the club’s intention to be playing in the new stadium for the 2024 season.
The club is now determined to complete the steps necessary to get the grant approval through in order to re-commence on-site construction in Stranorlar later this year.
He believes that retaining Finn Park “is a good use of resources” and along with the new stadium (which will have adjoining training pitches) it will all tie in with Donegal Co. Council’s policy of developing the Twin Towns of Ballybofey and Stranorlar as a regional sports hub.
When the first sod on the new stadium was turned way back in 2008, part of the plan was that the main contractor would get Finn Park in return to develop for other purposes and this would facilitate raising revenue to pay for the new project. But much has happened since, and the property market has been altered considerably. The disposal of Finn Park is no longer seen as necessary.
McLoone wants Harps to show leadership “for all soccer in Donegal” and to ensure that the facilities are opened up for all in the county.
With regard to the men’s first team, the hope is that under Ollie Horgan they can consolidate their position in the top flight and “kick-on” in the next few years. Who is to say that Harps won’t be playing European football in their new home in a few years from now!
Meanwhile, speaking on the RTÉ Soccer Podcast this week about the grant for the new stadium, McLoone said: "There is a bit of work to be done with the department to fine tune the allocation. You would note in the announcement it said provisional. Planning permission is in place so we could commence (as soon as possible).
"We got a design team in two years ago with the support of the Department of Sport. We examined the site and showed the structure that is in place is still fit for purpose. That was the critical issue.
"One way or the other, it is Finn Harps' ambition for the senior team to play there in the 2024 season."
McLoone added: "We have great partners involved now, including the Department for Sport, the FAI and most importantly, Donegal County Council who gave us a lease of the site.
"Only last week we leased an adjacent piece of land to develop a couple of training pitches. It is our ambition as a club, because we will have 16 teams in total when the ladies teams come on board, we would need four or five pitches including the stadium and the old Finn Park.
"I've been watching Ireland in international football for 40 years. When I saw what happened to our international women’s team some years ago where they had to borrow tracksuits and no place to change, I say if we're to develop ladies football in Donegal, due recognition should be given."
McLoone noted that Sports Minister Catherine Martin said there needs to be more support given to soccer in County Donegal. He pointed out that it is no accident that they are going to name the stadium Donegal Community Stadium. "It is for the people of Donegal, not Finn Harps," he stated.
"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."
As American author James Russell Lowell famously stated: "Not failure, but low aim is crime."
McLoone has vision; the hope must be that the Donegal public, businesses, the diaspora and all the stakeholders row in behind it.
A new dawn is there for Finn Harps; the challenge now is to work for it and grab the opportunity.
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