BY LIAM PORTER
LIKE the rest of the Finn Harps team, Lee Toland was buzzing this week.
Having conceded a late equaliser against Cobh in the Cup last Friday night, the odds were stacked against Harps when they travelled to the Cork town on Monday for the replay.
Few, if any, would have predicted a 4-0 victory and when he bagged his first goal as well for Harps it made it a very special night indeed for Toland.
“It was amazing and to get my first goal as well it was fantastic. We were gutted after Friday night, it was horrible to concede like that and to be honest I think Cobh thought from then on they had the game won.”
Toland was instrumental in changing that Cobh mindset. First he sent Kevin McHugh free down the left before the striker was pulled down in the box. McHugh, who scored on Friday night as well, made no mistake from the penalty spot.
Four minutes later the young Derry man got in on the act himself, finding the net with a powerful free-kick from the edge of the box. Cobh imploded after that and with two red cards dished out Harps saw off the nine men with further goals from Sean McVeigh and Mickey Funston.
It was a sweet, sweet victory and one Toland hopes will give the Harps players renewed confidence for the rest of the season he got to join much later than he had initially hoped.
Having agreed terms to play for Harps at the start of the season, his registration hit a snag.
“I had played in the pre-season games and had agreed terms with Peter (Hutton) but I wasn’t on a professional contract with Newcastle United and the amateur window for signing had then passed.”
In the interim, Toland signed for Kildrum Tigers and played in the Ulster Senior League to get games under his belt, but he was always keen to get back to Finn Park.
“I had played with Newcastle’s reserves and had trained with the first team, but the games with Harps mean so much more. Each game here is a must win, you can sense the importance of them, you didn’t get that in the reserve games across in England.”
Toland had, what every schoolboy player dreams of, a contract with a Premiership club, but he insists the grass isn’t always greener.
“Don’t get me wrong, I had the dream, but it is very difficult for young players. Initially I was with Portsmouth, going over and back every few weeks since I was fourteen. They wanted me to go over there right away but I was bright and stayed on at school here, then they went into administration and Newcastle came in for me.”
Toland spent two and a half years with Newcastle on a scholar contract but he says the absence of family support makes it very hard for young players away from home.
The tragic loss of his brother saw his appetite for the game dwindle and in the end he decided to return home.
“You have friends surely, but if you are injured they would be more intent on making the best of that opportunity for them than show concern for you. I was in digs and the people were lovely but it’s not the same as coming home to your family.”
The young defender said he honestly believes young players would be better moving when they are aged 20 or more, when they are more mature and had decent experience of the league here under their belt.
“When you see the success of players like Paddy McCourt or Seamus Coleman or Stephen McLaughlin you know that players can make the transition and I think when they are older it would be easier for players to do that.”
He suggested that teams in England were all very aware of how hard-working Irish players are.
“A lot of the players over there have grown up with the best facilities, the best of everything and some of the Irish lads have come from literally a field with two sets of goalposts in them. The Irish lads see where they are and they don’t want to lose it, they work so, so hard.”
But he added, a few years in competitive action here might stand those players just as well.
“The football here is a good standard and I could only imagine what it would be like if there was actually some money invested in it. If that were to happen Ireland would be an unbelievable place to play.”
Right now though Toland is enjoying his football again – even getting used to playing as a left-winger instead of a left-back – and the feel-good factor following Monday’s cup victory is only helping things.
“After Monday night the buzz was unreal, I could only begin to imagine what it would be like if we beat Drogheda, but what I hope now is that we take a lot from that win. I noticed a huge difference in morale from the games I played in pre-season to when I came back, but we have good players here and hopefully we can kick on from this. We need these games, we need to keep winning to get the confidence again, for this season and for next.”