BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THE landscape for clubs in the League of Ireland is rather forbidding these days.
In a country crippled by austerity and submerged in recession, Galway United became the latest club to become victims of the financial car crash before Christmas. Of course, clubs going bust is nothing new for the League of Ireland.
Over the last 12 years League of Ireland fans have witnessed the demise of established names like Kilkenny City and Cobh Ramblers, as well as the likes of Kildare County, St Francis, Dublin City, Home Farm Fingal, Sporting Fingal and Home Farm who have come and gone in varying flashes.
Senior football in Limerick has had quite a number of guises in that period while a raft of clubs have had differing difficulties in relation to finances.
In a club like Finn Harps, times are as strenuous as ever. The financial drip has been cut to a trickle in Ballybofey, but the club has managed to ride the latest storm that howled in the corridors of Finn Park.
Since the turn of the century, Harps have been swamped in financial difficulty – none more so perilous as that at the tail end of 2011 which threatened the very existence like no other troubles the club had faced.
So, ostensibly, it’s quite surprising to find Denise O’Neill, the club’s Treasurer, in upbeat mood as she faces the challenge of keeping the books on track ahead of the beginning of another season.
Ms O’Neill, from Knockfair in Stranorlar, doesn’t shy away from the cold, hard facts that present themselves rather imposingly around Navenny Street, and yet she retains a positively cheerful persona.
Denise O’Neill previously served on the Harps Board of Directors in 2005-06, but had to leave due to commitments to her Masters degree.
In May 2010, she was persuaded back by chairman Joey O’Leary. It was a time when Harps were struggling, but Denise thrust herself firmly into the fire – and into the most demanding position of all at Harps, that of Treasurer.
“I have always been a regular attendee at Shareholders meetings and was acutely aware of the crisis, both financially and from a personnel perspective, within the club,” she says.
“They badly needed help to fill the positions on the Board. I had thought about how I could realistically help out but didn’t feel that I could give it the time.
“Joey approached me to join the Board as they needed a Treasurer. We spoke at length about it. He was very clear about what the role would involve and I asked him for some time to consider the prospect.
“I knew it was going to be a huge commitment and I needed to be sure that I could and I suppose realistically wanted to do it. I eventually said yes and I can say I don’t honestly regret it.”
Consider her day-to-day schedule and you wonder just where Denise O’Neill gets the time to be Treasurer of Finn Harps.
A Home Economics teacher in the Ursuline College in Sligo for the last 15 years, Denise also works part-time with degree and master students in St. Angela’s College, while serving on the school’s Board of Management.
Living in Ballybofey, she makes a daily commute of some 180 kilometres.
To realise just why she makes the sacrifice, you have to know the woman. She has been steeped in the ways of the club from a young age. Her parents Denis and Kathleen are two of the club’s staunchest supporters, thick and thin Harps people, bleeding blue.
Her earliest memories are of watching proudly as her uncle Joe Logan strutted his stuff in the Harps midfield of his era.
“Finn Harps has been an integral part of my and my family’s life and I wanted to be able to do something to ensure it survived. Perhaps I didn’t really know the extent it would permeate my life,” she says.
But there is not a hint of regret, nor a hint of fatigue surprisingly. After coming off the back of a 2011 that threatened to signal the death knell at Harps, it would have been easy to bin the calculator and pass on the ledger.
“There were times I wanted to walk away and throw in the towel,” she admits, “but it is important to be positive and the passion that the supporters have for the club allowed us to persevere, when otherwise we might have given up.
“I think it’s fair to say that the recession has impacted the club’s survival very seriously. Everyone, every business and every organisation is experiencing severe cutbacks.
“So it is difficult to ask people to invest in the club, particularly when the performances have not been lacklustre at times.
“This has made the job very difficult as the finances were not there to meet the day-to-day running of the club.”
The way people got behind their endeavours as the club looked like it might well have fallen galvanised the Board.
Ms O’Neill says: “It was amazing to see the passion that people still had for the club. It’s fair to say that the there has been an apathy among supporters in recent years. A lot of people walked away and I acknowledge that there were at times very valid reasons for this.
“The way in which the Donegal people got behind the club in the last few months has rejuvenated the Board and those involved in fund-raising.
“I can’t say that the hard work is over; I think the public, perhaps, got a snapshot of what it takes to run the club on a day to day basis.
“There is huge pressure to pay bills while trying to meeting money owed to creditors. A lot has been achieved but there is still so much to do. We need to galvanise the future of this club. We need to make it sustainable and ensure it survives for future generations of Harps fans.
During last season, Ian Curristan stepped down as club secretary and in the off-months for school Denise filled that particular void too, often spending countless hours tucked away in the Finn Park office under a duvet of paperwork.
“My main role is treasurer but sometimes we all need to roll up our sleeves and take up the slack when needed. I did combine the role of treasurer and secretary,” she says.
There is a message here, she adds. Just six people are on the Board now following the departure last week of Commercial Officer Aidan Campbell. The recent establishment of a fundraising sub committee has lessened the burden in some ways – but the problem of manpower still exists.
“We desperately need help and need people to come on to the Board and help out.”
As for the immediate future, she says that it’s feet through the turnstiles that will hold the key this year.
“The only way this club will survive is if people get involved,” she says.
“That doesn’t only mean financially. We want people to put on their blue and white scarves again and make the pilgrimage to Finn Park. Coming to the matches and getting behind the team will be the only way that this club will survive. There have been really tough times and I’m sure we are not out of the woods yet, but the future is bright.”
She references the new stadium project, the young talent in Donegal who ‘deserve a chance to play for this club’ and the club’s under-19 team who are riding high in their section.
But there’s a way to go before those aspirations become reality. Currently involved in setting the budget for 2012, which must be sanctioned by FAI chiefs, there has been no ceasing of the workload.
And the task for the new season promises to be as stiff as the face of Ben Bulben she passes twice daily.
“We are realistic about what is possible but our figures and projections are subject to our main source of income, which is our gate receipts and of course our performances on the pitch.
“We want to be competitive both on and off the pitch. We want people to get excited about Finn Harps again.
“The coal face of any sporting organisation in the present financial climate is not a good place to be. League of Ireland clubs are all facing tough financial constraints.
“Lessons have been learned everywhere about the pitfalls of the false economy and it will take time for clubs to rectify the effects felt by the overspending.”
She credits the club chairman Joey O’Leary, whose ‘astute actions’ she believes saved the club and says that it’s ‘essential’ that Harps are competitive in the coming season.
“Finn Harps are not in the league to make up the numbers. We believe that we can compete with teams that have a bigger budget and more resources than us.
“We are positive that the 2012 season will see a strong start and a competitive campaign.”
She talks of her ‘immense pride’ in Finn Harps and remembers the night of the first floodlit game at Finn Park as her favourite Harps memory. Indeed, those present will hardly forget, even 16 years on, Damian Dunleavy’s cracking goal against UCD.
“We spent most of the night looking up instead of at the match…the naivety of it all!”
Harps spend most of their time ‘looking up’ these days, but with people like Denise O’Neill in the background the club appears in safe, passionate hands – and just maybe things are ‘looking up’ by the Finn as a new leaf is turned and the chapter of 2012 inserted into the story of Finn Harps.