BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THERE IS a passage in Patsy McGowan’s autobiography, The Strings of my Harps, that stands out more than the other countless memorable tales within.
At the tail-end of the 1972/73 season Harps were invited on a tour of the United States and Canada. At the end of what was only their fourth season in senior football, it was a measure of how McGowan’s charges had captured the attention of the public in those infant years for the Ballybofey club.
Harps flew out from Shannon for the 18-day trip across the Atlantic on May 18th 1973. Changing flights in Kennedy, they made their way to their first base, Philadelphia.
McGowan recalled the abiding memory for him as they made their way to the team hotel from the airport.
“As we drove through the teeming city with its racial problems, in the distance I could see what looked like a familiar name right on top of the city’s highest building in lights,” he wrote.
“As we got closer, I felt a thumping in my heart because, there for all to see, was the name Finn Harps. I felt really proud! We had come all the way from the bottom of the football ladder right to the top of one of the biggest cities in the world.”
Clive Toye was the then President of the New York Cosmos. He helped organise the tour and in 2002 remember of the Harps visit: “In those early days of the NASL we were trying to encourage ex-pats and immigrants who were soccer fans to come and see the teams in America. Harps were one of the top sides in Ireland at the time so who better to bring? I do remember that the crowd at the Cosmos game included a good number of vociferous, and celebrating Irish supporters.”
Last week, a photograph from the archives of the Chicago Tribune happened to pop up in a random ebay search. The caption on the photograph reads: “Philadelphia Atoms goalkeeper Bob Rigby making a ‘leaping interception’ to prevent Jim McDermott (8) of the Finn Harps of Ireland from getting the ball in front of the Atoms net. Rigby made the save in the first-half of Wednesday night’s North American Soccer League game played in Philadelphia.”
The game with the Philadelphia Atoms was the first of eight games Harps would play across seven cities during their stay.
A close examination of the photograph shows that McDermott and Rigby are not, in fact, wearing football boots. Rather, they are wearing trainers as the surface at the surface was artificial.
In 1973, artificial surfaces were unheard of in Ireland.
“We knew absolutely nothing about all-weather pitches,” recalled Gerry Murray, the Harps goalkeeper of the time, this week.
“It was a huge pitch, a great big stadium, a baseball arena. It was an 80,000 seater stadium and the artificial surface was something we’d never experienced before.
“The likes of McDermott and big Jim Sheridan would always have been used to roaring into sliding tackles. After the game, their legs were just covered in pure, raw flesh.”
The memories might have faded in the 39 years that have passed, but Murray – who’s still a regular around Finn Park – recalls one particular incident from after the 4-0 defeat to the Atoms.
“As facilities go, that one was the biggest any of us had ever played in. The Philadelphia team was mostly players who had been English based or Scottish.
“The dressing rooms in the place were massive and after the game we were taken into a place in the stadium that seemed like a hotel.
“A few years before that, Dunfermline had played a game against us in Ballybofey. But the night we played Philadelphia, we were mingling and one of the players who’d played for them (Philadelphia) was a Scottish man. I got talking to him and it turned out that he’d played for Dunfermline that night and, not only that, but wasn’t he married to a girl from Donegal town. It’s a small world, as they say.”
The trip last 18 days, from May 18th to June 6th. The sponsoring club, the New York Cosmos, paid the estimated £40,000 expenses for the Harps party, which comprised 17 players and five officials.
They played games in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Atlanta, Rochester, Montreal and Toronto, with fixtures against teams like the Philadelphia Atoms, Boston Astros, New York Cosmos, Atlanta Apollos, Rochester Lancers, Toronto Metros, Olympique Montreal and Shamrocks.
“It was a great experience at the time,” said James Barclay, another of the Harps playing staff who graced America.
“We had a fine side, some great players, back then – the likes of Peter Hutton, Charlie Ferry, the Nicholls and Jim Sheridan.
“A trip like that was all new to us, but we held our own in a few of the games.
“Soccer was only just getting off the ground in America back then, though the standard was mainly the same as ourselves. It was a fantastic experience to be out on a trip with a team for the best part of three weeks.”
Harps won their games against Boston Astros, Olympique Montreal and Shamrocks. The 8-2 win over Shamrocks was actually played at Gaelic Park, the home of Gaelic Games in New York.
“I had heard so much about this place over the years I was looking forward to not only seeing it, but playing soccer on it,” McGowan wrote in The Strings of my Harps.
But what they were greeted with would stun the visiting party.
“For a moment I thought we had come to the wrong place,” McGowan continued. “I looked at Gerry Murray and said ‘Holy Christ, what a dump!’ This was one of the worst playing surfaces I had ever seen. The dressing rooms were a disgrace and the surroundings were a mixture of a railway siding and a dump.
“If you were a GAA fan and saw the place you’d die from shock.”
Gerry Murray, for whom the trip to Niagara Falls on route to the Canadian legs of the tour was the most memorable part of the trip, also recalls the shock when their coach pulled up at Gaelic Park.
“We had all heard so much about the place, we were expecting something massive,” he said. “But it was an awful facility at the time and the night we played on it there was hardly a blade of grass on it.”
Harps got $100 a game with the players each receiving $15 a day spending money during the trip. Although Brendan Bradley is listed in the panel in the programme for the Philadelphia Atoms game, the Derryman didn’t travel with Donal O’Doherty going in his place. The squad was joined by Patsy McGowan, Fran Fields, Hugh Strain, Drew Brogan and Tom Furlong.
THE HARPS SQUAD FOR THE TRIP WAS:
Gerry Murray, Eunan Blake, Peter Hutton, Tony O’Doherty, Jim Sheridan, Paddy McGrory, Jim Smith, Jim McDermott, Donal O’Doherty, Terry Harkin, Joe Nicholl, Gerry Doherty, Jim Nicholl, James Barclay, Declan Forbes, Charlie Ferry, Joe Harper
RESULTS FROM FINN HARPS’ TOUR OF AMERICAN IN 1973
Philadelphia Atoms 4-0 Finn Harps
Boston Astros 4-7 Finn Harps (Donal O’Doherty 2, Terry Harkin 2, Jim Smith 2, own goal)
New York Cosmos 1-1 Finn Harps (Jim Smith)
Atlanta Apollos 7-2 Finn Harps (Terry Harkin, Charlie Ferry)
Rochester Lancers 1-0 Finn Harps
Toronto Metros 4-0 Finn Harps
Olympique Montreal 1-3 Finn Harps (Terry Harkin 3)
Shamrocks 2-8 Finn Harps (scorers unknown)
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