BY CHRIS MCNULTY
JIM Sheridan recalls it as if it were yesterday.
“That day is right at the forefront of my memory,” he says, forty years after the Rathmullan native became the first – and only – man to captain Finn Harps to success in an FAI Cup final.
April 21st 1974 saw Harps defeat St Patrick’s Athletic 3-1 at Dalymount Park. Just five years after being accepted into the League of Ireland’s big dance, their Cinderella was taking centre stage.
That frame with Sheridan standing before his euphoric people and raising the FAI Cup remains the iconic picture in the chequered history of a club that celebrates its 60th birthday this year.
Harps were only begrudgingly accepted into the League of Ireland in certain quarters, but they defied the odds in their fifth season to claim a famous win.
“As far as the Dublin boys were concerned, we had no team, no this, no that – but here we were, with the FAI Cup,” says Brendan Bradley, who scored two of the Harps goals in the final.
The ‘74 Cup final was the first to be televised live in colour by RTE and Harps got off to a dream start, netting after only three minutes as Charlie Ferry cracked a superb free-kick past St Pat’s goalkeeper Tom Lally.
‘Ferry lined up to the free, noted an elementary piece of bungling in the St Pat’s wall and curled the ball to the far post, exultantly watching it edge inside the post,’ read the Donegal News’ match report.
Ferry was a noted deadball specialist, who had scored direct from a corner twice that season: against Waterford United in the League; and in an FAI Cup quarter-final win over Bohemians.
“I scored against him the week before the final in the League from a free and in the final Lally decided just to put two men in the wall,” Ferry remembers now, the clip still replaying vividly for the Derryman.
Ferry holds a unique distinction from Harps’ march to Cup glory having scored a goal in every FAI Cup game that season.
“I was watching the semi-finals last year on RTE and a question came up about what player scored in every round of the Cup – I was the answer!” he recalls.
“It’s a great personal memory to have.”
One of the turning points came in the away tie at Bohemians. Harps had been battered, but trailed by just a single goal in the closing minutes when good fortune smiled on Patsy McGowan’s team.
Ferry says: “Against Bohs, Paul McGee hit a shot and it just sort of struck me on the side of the head – mind you, I always say that it was a great header!”
Ferry scored in the 4-1 win over Home Farm and against Bohs in both games, while he was on the mark with a penalty in the 5-0 semi-final win over Athlone Town at Oriel Park; a game that took two hours instead of ninety minutes. It is one of the League of Ireland’s most famous games, with Athlone goalkeeper Mick O’Brien twice purposely breaking his crossbar in a bid to have the game abandoned, succeeding only in getting himself sent off the second time.
“I was facing down the pitch at the time,” says Bradley.
“Mick had already broken the crossbar once. It was tied up, somehow, and it didn’t look too stable. I heard the crowd laughing and cheering and couldn’t figure out what was going on. I looked back and there was Mick up leaning as hard as he could on the crossbar.”
The story dominated the headlines, rather than Harps having reached the blue ribband decider for the first time in their history.
“The build-up was something else,” says Gerry Murray, the Harps goalkeeper of the time. “Everyone was wondering about Harps’ hopes of winning the Cup. The FAI Cup was special. It was the talk of the county for weeks.”
In the week leading up to the final, McGowan pulled off a masterstroke.
With Terry Harkin – a Northern Ireland international – set to miss the final because of an injury, the Harps manager gave Tony O’Doherty a call. O’Doherty had been injured for three months after hurting his groin in a League game in January.
“A few days before the final, we trained behind closed doors and I was to take part,” O’Doherty says.
“Unbeknownst to me, Patsy told Peter Hutton to hit me and hit me hard, which Peter duly did! I lost my temper, lost it completely. I went for Peter. If I’d got him, I’d have killed him. Suddenly, though, I realised that I had just taken a tackle from Peter Hutton: I was ready to play.”
McGowan managed to hoodwink St Pat’s, the media and pretty much everyone outside of his dressing room. It was the era before social media, but Harps still took no chances.
The squad was told on the Saturday night that O’Doherty was in. The spirits went up a notch there and then.
O’Doherty says: “It was much easier in those days to keep things like that under wraps. I didn’t stay with the team and I went to Dalymount Park separately. It was all ducking and diving, just to avoid the word getting out.
“It was a massive gamble. I just kept thinking: ‘What if this goes again?’
“The injury was horrible. It happened back in January. Whatever way I came down, I ended up doing the splits. My groin was gone. I couldn’t move for weeks. With Terry out, Patsy took a chance on me.
“Patsy just made me believe that it was going to be fine. He could make you believe anything at times.”
Earlier that season, Harps played Aberdeen in the UEFA Cup and O’Doherty attracted interest from the Scottish side. A bid of around £25,000 was reported to have been tabled, but O’Doherty opted to stay put.
He says: “I could have gone to Aberdeen that year, but the money just wasn’t right. Don’t get me wrong, financially it was a good enough deal with the fee, but I had a steady job at the time and it wouldn’t have been worth it.”
The crowds flocked from all arts and parts of the north-west to Dalymount, the spiritual home of Irish soccer. Around 14,000 attended the final. Experienced heads were plentiful, but this was still an occasion that gripped the Harps dressing room.
“We were very nervous beforehand,” Ferry says.
“We stayed a good bit outside Dublin the night before to keep us away from all the crowd. We were out on the pitch for a look around well over an hour before the game. There wasn’t much said in the dressing room.”
Just before his players went out for battle, McGowan delivered his parting words.
The injured Harkin wasn’t the only man absent from the squad. On the night of January 27th 1974, midfielder Jim McDermott was killed by a falling tree as he drove home in the club minibus. McDermott had scored in a 7-1 hammering of Home Farm earlier that day.
At 2.30am, a knock came to McGowan’s door. Harps Chairman Fran Fields was accompanied by a local Garda. The news they relayed haunted McGowan.
‘I could feel every nerve in my body tearing me apart,’ he wrote in ‘The Strings of my Harps’. ‘I sat there for a minute in the candlelight trying to let it sink in. The more the two lads talked about it the more it became real.’
As he readied his men for the game, McGowan asked them to remember their fallen colleague.
“Patsy just turned to us and said: ‘Let’s go and win this for Jim McDermott’,” Murray says. “It was powerful because Jim meant so much to us. He was a great player. That was such a tragedy.”
Ferry’s goal gave Harps a dream start, but St Pat’s drew level in the 19th minute through Sean Byrne.
“We didn’t defend it too well,” Sheridan says.
“The set piece came in, it was headed back across the goal and that threw us a wee bit. We should have got it away. We could have defended that one better and it was disappointing.”
Harps, though, were optimistic and despite the best of Pat’s efforts to break them down, it was Harps who stood firm.
‘The dominance of Sheridan was a major factor in keeping Harps in this game,’ said the Donegal News’ report.
“It was a bit edgy after they equalised,” says Bradley.
“We were confident going into it. The spirits were high and we’d beaten Athlone and Bohemians, two very good teams, to get to the final.”
Cup fever had gripped Harps land and they were buoyed on by a vociferous support.
O’Doherty says: “One of the great memories that I have from the day is the crowd. This is a cliché and everyone says it, but I said to Charlie Ferry when we came running out: ‘How can we lose the final with this crowd behind us?’ It was amazing.”
Twice in the final eleven minutes, Bradley struck to secure what remains the most treasured win in the history of Finn Harps.
Jim ‘Chang’ Smith’s cross was headed in for the lead goal and Harps could sense the win.
“I don’t think there was any way back for Pat’s after that. There was no way we were going to let it slip,” Bradley says.
Just in case, he added a second and Harps’ third to copper-fasten the win.
He recalls: “Charlie Ferry made the break and Peter Hutton was on his left. Peter got it around the full-back and Charlie slipped him in. He got it across, but it was just behind me. I was too far ahead, so I had to step back. I just went for it first time and kept my eye on it as I whacked it in from close range.”
Ferry believes that the winning of the game came in a telling switch made by McGowan during the second half.
He says: “Declan McDowell started in midfield. I think he felt playing at the back would ease Tony back into it. O’Doherty was a very good player and when Patsy switched the two boys again it was a master stroke. He must have just seen something and went for the change. Whatever it was, it worked.”
The final whistle brought bedlam and for Sheridan the best memory of his football career.
He says: “It was just a huge occasion. It was fairytale stuff when you consider where Harps had come from.
“I always consider myself to have been very lucky to play in such a team. Everyone contributed so much to the victory, but how could they not? Look at the players we had there.
“I never thought we’d lose that final.
“With a man like Bradley up front we were always confident that we wouldn’t lose if we kept things reasonably tight at the back. Bradley was just magical. We’ll never see his likes again.”
Triumphant Harps prepared for a spell-binding homecoming, but first had brief engagements at RTE’s studios and at Leinster House.
Into Ballyshannon and Donegal town they came and as the team bus snaked through Barnesmore Gap Gerry Murray wondered what awaited at ‘home’. Murray could almost feel the emotion beginning to spill as Ballybofey drew ever closer.
“Being the only Ballybofey man on the team meant something very special for me,” he says.
“It’s something I class as being a great personal achievement – I was the first Ballybofey man to win the FAI Cup.
“It was down to Patsy. He put faith in me. It was a huge step for me to be making into senior football. Patsy gave me the chance and stuck by me. I’ll always be thankful for the chance he gave me because junior football had been the height of it for me before then.
“Coming back into Ballybofey with the Cup was just unreal. The hairs were standing on the back of my neck. I was back in my own town and I couldn’t actually describe what it was like standing on the lorry outside Alexander’s shop. A few of us walked down with the Cup to Finn Park, through the crowds…great memories.
“The club has always been close to my heart and it still is.”
They’re a band of men who will forever be etched on the tapestry of Finn Harps Football Club. And yet Ferry cannot help but wonder what else might have been for the storied bunch.
“The fact that we never won a League still bothers me,” he says.
“We should have won two. That is always a disappointment for me. It annoys me, that. The team we had was definitely good enough. But, for me, the FAI Cup was the big highlight, no doubt.”
McGowan takes great delight in recounting their journey down O’Connell Street. From the throngs of people came a voice: ‘Go back to the bog where you belong’.
McGowan smiled. “I waved the FAI Cup in the air,” he recalled, “and told him we may be going back to the bog, but the Cup is going with us!”