I flew to Donegal to find Guinness and Damien Duff… & Duff ignored me

In Depth
Finn Harps during the match against Shelbourne, Donegal, Finn Park, 29 April 2022

It’s 10 a.m. and I am trapped in a heaving, sweating mob. It is early on a sweltering day in Manchester and a few hundred of us sorry souls are trying to get through security at the airport to catch our flight.

It’s a total contrast to where I’ll end up in a few days’ time, when I’ll be hanging around an almost empty stadium until about 10:45 p.m., waiting for Irish former footballer Damien Duff to talk to me.

But back to the airport, which is certainly not empty. There are families on their way to their all-inclusive retreats who already look like they’re already sick of each other, young couples still in their honeymoon phase heading off on their first trips away, and a lot of Rangers fans heading to Germany for a Europa League game.

But while I’m going to watch football, it isn’t anything as high-level as that. I’m off to Derry, where I’ll be picked up by my grandparents, head over the border to Donegal and then watch my beloved Finn Harps take on Shelbourne.

It’s a journey full of hills, a few good Guinnesses and even better football. If you consider a bottom-half-of-the-table League of Ireland clash played out in a stadium that resembles a cow shed good, that is. I very much do.

‘A bog of a pitch’

Finn Harps are not one of Irish football’s most storied clubs, nor are they one of the most successful. But, in my thoroughly biased opinion, they are the best.

Based in the central Donegal town of Ballybofey, they were officially formed in 1954 and managed to snag their way into the League of Ireland ahead of other, then-bigger clubs in the region.

At the time they were elected into the league in 1969, one journalist couldn’t contain his bemusement.

“My god,” he’s reported as saying, “they’ve elected a team that only has two players, a set of goalposts and a bog of a pitch.”

That wasn’t far from the truth, but it didn’t half represent the snobbery towards Donegal that many people from the county still feel remains today.

Making up most of Ireland’s North West, Donegal’s main border is with Northern Ireland rather than any of its fellow Republic counties. That’s contributed to a countywide feeling of being cut off from the rest of the country.

Even a tourism slogan for the region tells the reader that “up here, it’s different.”

“I’ve always felt that we’re up there in the North and we don’t get our fair slice of the political pie,” Harps’ 1974 FAI Cup-winning captain told me in an interview last year.

“The government spend money all around the country and I always felt we were isolated from it.”

That’s a sentiment shared by the lads I meet in a pub right next to Harps’ Finn Park ahead of kick-off.

Ethan, the club’s media secretary, had been due to meet me for the match, but living in Dublin his circumstances changed and he was unable to come.

But that was no bother. He put me in contact with his mates who he knew were going and regardless of the fact I had never met these guys before, we were soon drinking and sharing a laugh.

We all agree that this match does particularly well for feeding into that Donegal-against-the-world mentality. In large part that’s because of the club Harps are up against, but also of the man in charge of them: Damien Duff.

A tale of two managers

Shelbourne are one of Ireland’s oldest and most successful clubs, having won 13 league titles in comparison to Harps’ none. Yet in 2007 they were unceremoniously kicked out of the league as huge debts saw them stripped of their licence.

Since then they’ve returned and yo-yoed between Ireland’s two divisions, but now under Duff, they’re intent on staying up.

“It’s not a ‘sleeping giant’, it’s a ‘giant’,” Duff said ahead of the 2022 season kick-off.

“First Division clubs think they can come up and dip their toes in the water and see how they go under the radar for 10 games.”

“That’s not the case with Shelbourne FC. There’s a lot of eyes on them, a lot of pressure on them and they have to fill their jersey.”

It’s Duff’s first gig as a senior manager, having done his time in plenty of youth-team roles at various clubs and the national team. If his aim is to keep Shelbourne up, one of the men hoping to prevent him from doing so will be in the opposite dugout today; Ollie Horgan.

If you have any knowledge of Irish league football, you’ll know that the two could not be more different. Duff was the golden child of Irish football for so long and a Premier League champion. Horgan? A secondary school maths and PE teacher, which he still is today alongside his role as Harps’ boss.

Duff is a newcomer to League of Ireland management in his first job at a big Dublin club while Horgan is a true veteran, the longest-serving manager in the league at the thoroughly rural Harps.

Even their appearance is a contrast. Duff, a fairly clean-cut figure in comparison to Horgan’s iconic long head of grey hair, seen most weeks on the touchlines of Ireland’s stadium in between his bellowing orders.

“My background and my management team’s background is old school,” he explained to me last year.

“We as a management team aren’t going to change our core values, they might be old fashioned, from a different generation, but certainly we won’t be changing.

“I don’t really care what people say about me. I never did, and I never will.”

As we’re finishing our last pint before heading 10 seconds across the road for kick-off, we start exchanging anecdotes and tales about Harps’ behemoth boss.

There’s talk he once walked across a muddy training pitch without any shoes on after realising he had put someone else’s on by mistake and that he once turned up to an award ceremony in a full tracksuit, was told of the dress code and so pulled a lone, creased shirt out of his car boot.

Oh, and someone points out he’s a trained pianist. A good one as well. Because of course he is.

Dancing on turf

Into the stadium we go, and what a sight it is.

The pitch itself looks good. Despite the constant criticism it receives from opposition coaches and journalists, considering much of Donegal is literal peat bog the fact a pitch can even be kept to some standard is a tribute to the volunteer staff that looks after it.

But the stadium, as much as I adore it, is in some state. There are about 200 seats, all of which are under the only bit of roof in the stadium which is no more than pieces of corrugated iron long ago painted in Harps’ dark blue. It looks like a cowshed, the toilets like a pig trough and we Donegal sheep farmers love it all the same.

A new stadium has been on the cards for nearly two decades, the funding for which the government and others have continuously promised and withdrawn.

The game fitting of this great arena… as in it’s chaotic, messy and lacking any flow.

The league has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, with players, teams and coaching all improving. But there’s no way around the fact that this is a slog of a match. But it’s understandable given that both teams are desperate for three points.

With a home win, Harps would move within three points of Shelbourne and close the gap on the safe spots, while if Shelbourne snag a result they’ll open clear ground between themselves and Harps’ ninth spot, whoever finishes in which must play in a relegation play-off with a team from the division below.

So when half-time rolls around with the scores level at 0-0, it’s a welcome chance to walk around the stadium. There are plenty of kids in Harps tops here, but even more in other football tops. There are jackets from the local GAA club, Liverpool shirts, Manchester United tops and plenty of Celtic paraphernalia too.

This is the issue Harps and the entire game in Ireland faces. There’s significant competition for spectators in the small nation, and football doesn’t just have to compete with Ireland’s native sports but with English football clubs as well.

Whilst plenty of fans follow an English side and their local team, many more would rather sit at home and watch the Premier League than go out and support their local side, before of course complaining about the state of the Irish national team.

“They follow the Queen’s football teams,” as this man with the most Dublin of all accents said in one of the internet’s greatest videos.

I say hello to people I know or half-recognise as I wander around, along with those I don’t. I also grab a soup from the little coffee shack, or more accurately the soup dispenser. Homemade by volunteers, cheap and warming, it is a staple of any Harps match.

The second half starts much like the first ended, with nothing between the sides. Shelbourne are on top for the longest stint but they lack a final ball, as do Harps when they have their turn at the helm.

That’s until a free-kick by Harps’ Barry McNamee is sent across to the back post where chaos ensues and it ends up in the back of the net.

The crowd erupts and there’s a variety of arms grabbing me just as mine grab theirs back… until we notice the ref has blown for something. A supposed offside or handball or something else that the linesman didn’t give, but the referee supposedly saw.

We groan and accept this means an inevitable scrappy Shelbourne winner now. Instead, we get something much better.

Late in the game and another Harps corner, this one headed out of the box. Local boy Luke Rudden looks set to hit it… but lets it go.

And thank God, because into the path of the curly-mop-headed beauty that is McNamee it went. One touch to take it onto his left and then bang, through the mess of the box and bobbling along the ground into the bottom corner.

We were directly behind the ball, and as soon as it left his foot we knew it was in. “Lucky charm!” I deliriously shout as we bounce about and shout, referring to myself since I now haven’t watched the side lose in person in years. What an arse.

Duffed up

As the full-time whistle goes, it’s elation. “We need to invest in a Manchester to Derry travel card so you can get to every match,” one of the guys says to me.

After we say our goodbyes I head back into the stadium while everyone else clears out. I’m desperate to speak to Duff, and there’s a few local journos wanting to do the same.

It’s a good 30 minutes until he reemerges from the dressing room however, heading straight to give an interview to Shelbourne’s press officer while his players warm down. As soon as that’s done, he heads back to his players.

I manage to catch the press officer’s attention. I explain that Ethan might have mentioned me and that it would be class to speak to Duff for just a few seconds if that was alright… but I’m told no. They’ve even turned down Sky and he’s definitely not speaking after a loss. I posit a Zoom in a few weeks’ time, and the polite waffle confirms to me that that’s another no.

‘So, was the whole journey for nothing?’, I pondered as I went back into the pub next door for one final Guinness.

And as I stared into its comforting blackness, remembering the match that just took place, and knowing that I’d be heading back to my grandparents’ and going off on a walk in the Donegal hills the next day, I shook my head.

Worth it? There’s nothing more priceless.

By Patrick Ryan

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