BY CHRIS MCNULTY
FOURTEEN years ago, on a balmy August evening in 1998, a young striker from Killea signed for Finn Harps at a time when the club was riding on the crest of a wave.
As they entered their third year in the Premier Division of the League of Ireland, Charlie McGeever had moulded a team that would contest the FAI Cup final that season (1998/99) and finish fourth in the League. The world was their oyster, it seemed.
McGeever eyed up a young striker for whom he saw a big future in the game and snapped him up.
That he saw the then 18-year old Kevin McHugh has a natural successor to a front pairing that was one of the most feared in Ireland, Jonathan Speake and James Mulligan, was some endorsement of McGeever’s belief in the player.
Kevin McHugh has just ended his eleventh season at Finn Harps and the records lay bare his standing in the game. He is Harps’ second highest goalscorer of all time with 161 goals in 334 appearances and is just seven goals away from entering the top five goalscorers in League of Ireland history.
“The raw talent was always there and it was natural that he went on to become Harps’ main striker,” McGeever says of McHugh, the Harps captain who celebrated his Testimonial at the weekend.
“His longevity is down to hard work and dedication.
“One of the things that stood out for Kevin in his younger days was that he was physically very strong. He was so mature for his age, too, and the fact that he was strong marked him out as one to watch. I always felt that he was a fella who would have a long career.”
He had already been on McGeever’s radar before McHugh played for Fanad United against a Harps select in a seven-a-side tournament in Killybegs. “A few pints later, Charlie moved in and invited me to train,” says McHugh of his introduction to Harps, “but that’s how deals were done back then.”
From a bar counter in Killybegs, one of the greatest ever Finn Harps careers was born. McHugh, though, was initially unconvinced of his prospects. As an understudy to Speake and Mulligan, McHugh pushed himself hard – and asked manys the searching question about his quality.
“I always had confidence in my own ability, but there was always a voice inside my head saying: ‘Are you good enough for this level?’ The voice got louder every time I missed a chance. I overheard people saying: ‘He’s not good enough’,” he says.
“Speakie and James were the top strikers in the country at the time. I learned so much, especially from Speakie.”
McHugh always believed in his ability, something derived from his strong faith. A weekly Mass-goer, the 32-year old Donegal County Council IT Technician prays every night, a habit he’s carried on from traditions passed on by his mother, Claire, and his grandmother in Killea, Rosie O’Donnell.
The overheard comments strengthened his own resolves as he took his first steps in senior football. He says: “Those things made me mentally very strong and have stood me in good stead over the last 15 years.”
McGeever didn’t just come on McHugh by chance. He’d already made quite the name for himself around the county and beyond. The previous season he made four appearances for the Republic of Ireland Schoolboys – playing against England, Switzerland, Scotland and Wales in a team that included current Ireland defender John O’Shea.
Locally, his services were sought by several clubs. In one season he recalls playing for six different teams: Killea FC/Kildrum Tigers/Raphoe Town/Drumoghill/Buncrana Hearts and Ashfield in Derry.
“Soccer was the only sport I knew until I was well into my teens. Different managers used to just call for me and I jumped into whose ever car it was and headed off.”
At that time, his native Killea was making waves at underage level. McHugh comes from a rich soccer area and the family is steeped in the Killea club. Even now, he still rates his younger brother Anthony as one of the best natural players he’s played alongside.
“Ah ‘Nugget’ was a great player,” he says.
“He was one of the few players I knew, even to this day, who was naturally two footed. My memory of him and me playing on the one team is simple: ‘Nugget tackled’, fight broke out, the two McHughs sent off again. That was quite common!”
In his first season at Harps, McHugh was part of a Harps team that was the ultimate ‘nearly’ side. Three cracks they had at the FAI Cup final in May 1999. On day three, it was Pat Devlin’s Bray who took the silverware.
The memories of those jaunts to Tolka Park has haunted the Finn’s meandering waters in the 13 years since. The hurt still lingers for those fans who had draped themselves almost perilously over the perimeter of the Riverside Stand onto the pitch as Harps led deep in extra time. The glory days seemed destined to return to Navenny Street. Within seconds, the dream evaporated. Even the equalising goal had quite the saga. Brian McKenna, the Harps goalkeeper, saved a penalty from Colm Tresson, but Ciaran O’Brien buried the rebound. To this day, the slow-motion visual of the encroaching O’Brien tucking home is unbearable for some.
Back they came for a second replay, their third bite at the Cup final cherry, with Harps beaten 2-1 – the two goals coming from Jason Byrne, who is the man now second on that illustrious all-time League of Ireland list of goalscorers that McHugh is also part of.
McHugh says of the dramatic coclusion to that season: “When you look back at the hype and the buzz that was around Harps back then I can say that it helped to shape me and make me the player I am.
“That was a great experience and was the catalyst for my hunger to do well as a player.”
The following season, Harps survived relegation – but only just. Gavin Dykes replaced McGeever as manager and for the start of the 2000/01 season McHugh was loaned out to Omagh Town. The loan spell didn’t last too long as McHugh’s performances in the Irish League soon had the Ballybofey boardroom questioning the move.
He came back to become Harps’ top goalscorer that season. In his eleven seasons at Finn Park, McHugh has been top scorer in nine of them – the only exceptions being his first two.
Cash-strapped Harps were relegated in 2001. Seen as unlucky by some, McHugh is blunt when he assesses: “We just weren’t good enough.”
McHugh could have walked after relegation, but stayed loyal. For him, football was his only love; scoring goals was the cash that counted.
“The only thing I knew was playing and scoring. I was never motivated by money and, I’m proud to say, that every move I made or every team I played for, the choice was my own and was always about football. There were a lot of mercenaries around during my time at Harps and Derry – to put it mildly, I couldn’t stand them.”
Before his time, Harps endured the pain of promotion play-off defeats in 1994 and 1995 against Cobh Ramblers and Athlone Town. McHugh’s class had to go through the mill too. Tuesday April 23rd 2002 was the best and worst of days for McHugh. A hat-trick hero, he inspired Harps to a 3-2 win over Longford Town in the second leg of their duel. Longford forced extra time and then penalties. All ten of the regular kicks were converted. The season came down to sudden death penalties: Wes Byrne scored for Longford and Tom Mohan watched in horror as his low kick was saved by Stephen O’Brien.
“Five players were decided for penalties and we needed a sixth…there was a silence and, to be fair, Tom Mohan put his hand up,” McHugh says, still wincing ten years on.
“That is the type of player and person he was. Sudden death penalties are so cruel. He was the bravest man in Finn Park that night.
“That’s still hard to talk about and hard to describe. It was the biggest high and the biggest low within half-an-hour of each other in front of a packed house. We had a great team that year…”
Further heartache followed the next season as Galway triumphed in a play-off, but in December 2003 the play-off conundrum threw up the ultimate tie: Harps versus Derry City.
Noel King, who had taken over as Harps manager, said that he felt it was written in the stars for Harps to relegate the old enemy. Stalemate in Ballybofey set up a winner-takes-all return leg in a Brandywell cauldon that was raw with passion.
Mark Fareen looked to have won it for Derry, only for McHugh to conjure up one of the most memorable goals of his Harps career. After crashing home from the edge of the box, McHugh leapt onto the track and impersonated a greyhound!
“I never thought it would get so much attention,” he says.
“Noel King asked me in the hotel before the game: ‘What’s your celebration when you score tonight?’ I had a few hours to think about it, which was dangerous! Derry fans didn’t like it and, if truth be told, they never got over it even during my three years at Derry.”
Liam Coyle hit the extra-time winner – a controversial winner from a controversial game in which the referee, Alan Kelly, made enemies for life in the Harps section.
McHugh still froths at the mouth at the mention of an extra time period that was played amid a poisonous atmosphere: “I’m not going to sugar coat this: the referee made a mess of extra time. Such stupid decisions cost our club that night – and nearly ruined us. We were the better side by a mile in extra time and only one team looked like winning. Ach, enough said…”
King departed early in the following season – and the arrival of Felix Healy again divided the opinions of the Finn Park faithful.
However, first season saw him deliver what no other manager had – a League title. Finally, after three successive defeats in play-offs, Harps were ‘going up’.
McHugh says: “Felix brought a different ethos into the club at the time. He tried to improve players as people first and then worked on the football. His team talks were never dull and actually 99 per cent of them were never about football.
“It meant everything to win that League. 90 per cent of the team had year after year of heartache, training three times a week and travelling up and down the country for 40 weeks of the year. That can take its toll mentally and physically if there is no carrot at the end of it.”
McHugh was awarded the First Division Player of the Year award in ’04 having hit 27 goals in all competitions.
There was something special about that Harps team.
McHugh nods in agreement. “Two words: Team spirit. We had it in abundance that year and our dressing room was very tight. When I looked back over all the teams I played in, 2004 was the best. What we lacked in ability we more than made up with our heart and desire.”
McHugh believes that Healy ultimately ‘underestimated’ the step up to the Premier Division. The Derryman departed and Anthony Gorman stepped in, but Harps would fall again to the First Division in 2005.
In December ‘05 came the news all Harps fans dreaded: McHugh was transferring to Derry City.
“Playing there definitely helped me as a player and improved me,” McHugh contests.
“I won three League Cups and an FAI Cup with Derry. The highlight was playing PSG in Paris – that gave me an insight and a real taste of what top players get week-in, week-out.”
He spent three seasons at Brandywell, but had to move on as he was still holding down a full-time job and Derry had gone full-time under Stephen Kenny. Another surprise transfer saw McHugh head for Irish League giants Linfield.
He says: “I had enough of running from pillar to post and Linfield was a great move. They’re a great club and the biggest in Ireland in my opinion. They are so well run and the people involved were all top class. Again, though, the drive to Belfast three times a week after work wasn’t the brightest idea I’d ever had and I had to leave.”
In January 2010 he was back at Finn Park. In the three seasons since his return, McHugh has been the club’s top scorer in each.
He began taking his coaching badges recently and has been helping out at Killea FC’s under 16s this year. A keen golfer, he also cycles on occasion, but his biggest kick is from the ‘simple things’.
He says: “I love my wee days out with Aine (his wife) and the wanes (Odhran, 2, and Ella, 6), going to the park and popping into McDonald’s afterwards – the simple things are the best.”
Scoring goals makes him smile – and he’s optimistic for the future at Finn Park. He pays tribute to the Board of Directors at the club and his answer when asked for his highlights from his career is telling.
“Watching the current Board build the club back up is one,” he says. “They have done it the honest way too, and not just started again, and have rebuilt a lot of bridges.”
Now he carries the responsibility of being the club captain, McHugh takes the role seriously. He cites his opponents in tonight’s novel testimonial game against the Donegal senior Gaelic football team as leaders in what it takes to succeed.
“Look at the success of the Donegal team – they proved that, with the right attitude, anything is possible.
“The key is that there is the hunger to do well and that gives me heart; it gives me a drive to keep in good shape and become part of another successful Harps team.
“There is a really good attitude in the current team. The mind-set has changed big time in the last six months and ‘Pizza’ is instilling a good professionalism in the group that everyone is buying in to. If they don’t, they’ll be shown the door.”
Harps have always produced the killer number 10. In McHugh, Charlie McGeever found a gem, but the looking back is something that sits uncomfortably for a man who feels in the form of his life.
“I hope that there are more highlights to come. I hate looking back to be honest. I can do that when I finish up and I feel more responsible being club captain. It would mean a lot if I could be captain of a Harps team that wins something.
“I am not too worried about making friends in football anymore. It’s about the winning at the end of the day – and I have enough friends and not enough silverware!”
FIVE OF THE BEST
Kevin McHugh has scored 161 goals in his Finn Harps career. Here, Chris McNulty selects five of his best…
1. 20th November 2004 Harps 3-0 Dundalk
With Harps leading 2-0 and heading for a first ever League title, McHugh put the gloss on a memorable evening before a heaving Finn Park. Setting off on a mesmerising run from half-way, McHugh jinked away from several Dundalk players before finding the net with a stylish finish. The perfect way to end the perfect season for the First Division’s Player of the Year in front of over 5,000 in Ballybofey.
2. 14th December 2003 Derry City 2-1 Harps (after extra time)
This one just had to get selected. More for what it meant in those manic few seconds when he crashed past Gary Ramsay, the Derry City goalkeeper, from 20 yards out. Harps trailed Derry and were on their way to defeat when McHugh produced a moment of magic to force extra time. The away section erupted, fans spilled back into the ground from the Derry city streets and the ‘greyhound’ celebration went down in Harps folklore.
3. 12th January 2002 Harps 2-1 Shelbourne
Premier Division Champions Shelbourne were drawn away to First Division Harps. McHugh has always regarded 2001/02 as his best season at Harps. He was in rich scoring form – and this game showed just how important he was. Former Harps player Jonathan Minnock had levelled Niall Cooke’s opener for Harps when, before a huge Finn Park crowd, McHugh from 25 yards stuck a beauty high into the Shels net to cause the upset of the round.
4. 24th June 2005 Shamrock Rovers 1-4 Finn Harps
Harps’ return to the Premier Division endured a tough opening, but in this game against their fellow strugglers, Rovers, the plan came good at last. Stephen Capper, Paddy McGrenaghan and Chris Breen had scored to put Harps 3-1 up. McHugh bagged a lethal fourth to seal the deal, spinning on the edge of the area and finding a pin hole through which he threaded through the ball to find the net.
5. 21st September 2012 Wexford Youths 2-2 Harps
The predatory instincts haven’t vanished with time as McHugh showed with this glorious goal. Having helped work the ball down the right channel with Michael Funston, the striker showed the clinical edge that has marked his career. McHugh, from the edge of the box, dinked the ball over the stranded Graham Doyle. Weighted brilliantly, the goal seemed to drop into the net in slow motion. It was vintage McHugh.