BY CHRIS MCNULTY
ONE weekend in May, Josh Mailey was called aside by Peter Hutton and told to prepare himself for inclusion in that Monday night’s Cup game at Finn Park.
This was no ordinary Cup tie: Derry City were in town.
At the time, Harps were riding high in the First Division, tucked neatly in second spot, while Derry were flying in the upper echelons of the Premier Division. Peter Hutton took something of a gamble and played several of his young guns.
Josh Mailey had never previously played competitively for Harps. He’d sat on the bench several times during the 2011 season, but this, as they say, was ‘it’.
“It was my debut so, regardless of who it was against, I was going to be giving it my all anyway,” Mailey says.
“That it was Derry was extra incentive for me.
“Derry, no matter what sort of side they bring, is a massive game for Harps. At that time, they were flying high. You don’t need to get geared up for Harps against Derry.
“The crowd, the occasion, the lead-up – everything is buzzing. Before you know it you’re out on the pitch playing. It goes so fast. Once you get settled in the game’s over. It was a great game to make the debut in.
“I was thinking at the start that I’d be nervous playing a home in front of big crowds. But, the crowd spurs you on and gives you that extra piece of energy if you’re tired. You really get energised with the roar of the crowd.”
Mailey has made ten appearances, including his debut – which ended in a nerve-wrecking penalty shoot-out defeat – and has slipped seamlessly in at centre-back, the young Letterkenny man looking assured in this week’s FAI Cup games. Harps, the First Division’s third-from-basement team, ought to have had Premier Division Drogheda put away, but at least there were flickers from Harps that they can compete with some of the top teams.
“It shows you that when we need a performance that we’re capable of mixing with the big teams,” he says.
“Consistency has been our downfall. In pre-season, we beat Dundalk and drew with Sligo. Now, we took Derry to the wire and took Drogheda to a replay.
“The League form has been frustrating. If we can produce the same sort of form as against Drogheda we can climb a place or two.”
Since making their exit from the FAI Cup, it has been said that, with no chance of making the play-offs, that Harps’ season is over.
Mailey, though, has an interesting take on the next month.
He says: “Individually there is a lot to play for. You want to keep your place in the team to keep yourself in Peter’s future plans. Everyman wants to do that and as a team we want to finish as high up as we can. We definitely want to finish higher than we are now.
“Hopefully I can stay in the team now for the rest of the season and going into the start of next season.”
Football was never far away from the young Mailey. His aunt Sheila is married to former Harps player and manager Anthony Gorman and Mailey was always a player of real promise.
Having signed for Letterkenny Rovers from the Ballyraine Schoolboys, he excelled at Leckview Park. In 2010, he captained the Rovers youth team to a League and Cup double in 2010, a season that saw them reach the quarter-finals of the FAI Youth Cup, losing to Celbridge Town. That season, Mailey was named as the Donegal Youth League’s Player of the Year.
He signed for Harps in 2011 and sat on the first team bench a few times. A frustrating time ensued though when he was troubled by a psoas muscle injury that kept him out for almost a year. He went back to Rovers, only for Harps to invite him to return to Finn Park again.
“I knew that I’d have to prove myself, but I was willing to take that chance. Hopefully it pays off now,” he says.
“I’ve enjoyed it immensely. It’s my first year playing senior football. It’s different from playing for Rovers. You need a lot more composure and you have to change your lifestyle a wee bit.
“There is a huge step up. When I got my first chance with Harps this season, I had been playing Ulster Senior League with Harps and my fitness was good. It doesn’t matter where you are, First Division standard is a whole different ball game. You need a run of matches to get to the pace of it and allow yourself to assert yourself.”
The words of encouragement from Peter Hutton are still flowing – and Mailey holds the manager in high regard.
He says: “He just took me in and he encouraged me to go and enjoy it. The likes of Shane McGinty have played recently too. Peter is great with young players. We have a good few youngsters and Peter isn’t afraid to play anyone.”
Mailey’s calm and composed performances at the heart of the Harps rearguard have shown that he’s at home in senior football.
And, with 2014 in mind, he’s already thinking ahead: “I’m sure we’ll do better next year. If we were doing better the crowds would come out, no doubt. Harps have a good fan base so hopefully we can put that right.”