Last Friday night, football fans in the north west got a chance to see the SSE Airtricity League’s two leading sides take on local opposition.
At the Brandywell, while Derry City were taking on high-flying Dundalk, Finn Harps hosted in-form UCD in Ballybofey.
And while Harps made a much better fist of it than their neighbours Derry, both Dundalk and UCD went back down the road with three more valuable points in their push for league honours in their respective divisions.
Before Friday night, there were plenty of Harps fans who held out hope of their team possibly catching the Students in the race for automatic promotion from Division One. A win for Harps would have cut the gap to just four points. The defeat means UCD are now ten points better off than Ollie Horgan’s side, with ten games to go.
So where to now for Harps? Well the play-offs, it would seem, are as good as it can get.
As it stands, Harps are out of the play-off places with Drogheda, Shelbourne and Longford Town above them, and Galway United just two points behind.
Their league position, coupled with some disappointing performances this season, has prompted some Harps fans to call for change, with Horgan and his assistant Paul Hegarty coming in for plenty of criticism.
Even on match nights, some home fans have been losing patience and haven’t held back in their criticism of player, and managerial performances.
The criticism hasn’t gone unnoticed by Horgan. He said he accepts that supporters are entitled to have their say when they pay good money to watch his team on a Friday night.
But he insists the fans have got to realise that many of his players are new to League of Ireland football. He argues that when things aren’t going right for the team, the young players need the backing of everyone at the club. The last thing they need is a proverbial kicking from their own fans.
Horgan has a point. He fully accepts that the squad he put together this season isn’t near big enough to cope with the amount of injuries and suspensions that have hit Harps this year.
It’s because of that, that he has been forced to rely on the likes of the inexperienced Sam Todd, Mark Coyle, Jesse Devers, and in more recent times, Niall McGinley and Mikey Place.
This time last year, none of those players were on Horgan’s radar. But for now, at least four of them are first choice players in his team.
Once the July transfer window opens, expect plenty of comings and goings at Finn Park. Will the O’Connor brothers still be around? It seems unlikely. Even if they are, Horgan simply must add to his panel, with strengthening needed in defence, midfield and attack.
Tommy McBride, who along with the brilliant Paddy McCourt, has been so important in midfield this season, is facing a lengthy ban following his recent red card against Longford. That will be another option gone for Horgan.
When they return to action after the mid-season break, Harps face two away games at Cabinteely and Drogheda. They really must take something from one of those games before they meet Longford Town in Ballybofey on Friday, July 13 - their next home game.
That will be the first of five league games that Harps have left to play at Finn Park.
The games are running out, but there are still 30 points to play for.
Harps’ hopes of securing a play-off spot and a top four finish might will depend on a wide number of things going their way. But if they can stop giving away bad goals (all three against UCD were definitely avoidable), and improve on their discipline, that would be a good start.
Some decent signings in the July transfer window will also be key.
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