BY CHRIS MCNULTY AT FINN PARK
KEVIN McHugh’s name is stitched into the very fabrics of Finn Harps.
The Killea native’s two second-half goals in Wednesday’s 4-1 win over Avondale United in the FAI Cup quarter-final replay at Finn Park took him to 176 goals for the club.
It felt fitting that it was McHugh – one of the peroxide blonde boys from 1999 – who sealed the deal with a clinical double after Gareth Harkin and Damien McNulty set Harps on their way to the semi-finals.
For the first time since that spring in 1999 under the watch of Charlie McGeever, Harps are back in the last four.
“It’s only myself and Michael Funston in the squad now who’d remember the place jammed with a great atmosphere,” McHugh said.
“I’ve been explaining to them all week about this club. It’s been fifteen years since we were in the semi-finals last – that was my first season. I thought it would be like that every year when I started off.
“It’s nice to have a buzz about again.”
An expectant, but nervous 793 supporters converged on Finn Park to see Harps return themselves back to the big stage again.
A tie against a non-League outfit would ordinarily be the dream draw, but as Harps found out in a 1-1 stalemate in Cork on Sunday, Avondale can mix it with more lofty opponents.
“All week Ollie was harping on about how good Avondale are,” McHugh said.
“He’s played against them with Fanad and he knows them well. Somewhere in the back of the mind you were wondering if he was over-talking them.
“After Sunday we realised they’re a very good side and they never lie down. There aren’t too many League of Ireland teams who would keep going the way they did at three-nil down.”
Avondale fired an early warning to Harps when Ray Lally forced Conor Winn into a save, but Harkin’s eleventh-minute opener set Harps up for a move into the semis.
McHugh said: “The objective was to get through at all costs and we’ve done that. It would have ruined the season in a way if we’d been put out of the Cup. We’ve something massive to play for now.
“We didn’t start great and we were a bit nervous because the prize was so big. It was fitting that Gareth got the first goal because he’s been super since he got into the team.”
A recent slump in form ended Harps’s promotion hopes, but Ollie Horgan’s men are now in dreamland – and just one game from an Aviva Stadium final. McHugh won the FAI Cup with Derry City in 2006.
Harps go into Monday’s draw alongside Derry, St Patrick’s Athletic and Shamrock Rovers. One tie, above all else, would set the pulses racing: Harps v Derry, ‘the obvious one’ as McHugh called it.
“We don’t really care who we get,” he said.
“A home tie would be great, but o matter who we get it’ll be tough.”
No matter who they face, Harps will be the big underdogs, but McHugh insists that the Donegal side won’t give in easily.
He said: “It’s definitely in our grasp. Look, we’re in a semi-final and we’re not going to be there to hear: ‘Well done Harps, unlucky there’. We’ll be looking to win the game. We’re ninety minutes away from the Aviva Stadium.
“I can’t explain how hard this squad has worked this season. We’ve been going since the second week of January and there’s been no let up.
“Finn Harps is recognised again. That’s where this football club deserves to be.”