Finn Harps match winner BJ Banda swamped by fans at the final whistle of their 2015 promotion-relegation playoff against Limerick. Presseye/Lorcan Doherty/INPHO
a true underdog story

How a little-known South Africa-born teenager became an overnight hero in Irish football

Finn Harps starlet BJ Banda chats to The42 about his hopes for the new season, a little over a year on from THAT goal.

6 NOVEMBER 2015 was the day BJ Banda put his name in the Finn Harps record books.

It was a night that fans at Finn Park will never forget. Trailing 1-0 from the first leg at Markets Field, a Michael Funston goal on 38th minutes ultimately took the Finn Harps-Limerick promotion-relegation playoff match to extra time.

In the 103rd minute of the game, manager Ollie Horgan made a big call. Veteran striker, Kevin McHugh, a Finn Harps legend who had scored over 100 goals in two separate spells with the club, was substituted. In his place came a little-known 17-year-old who was studying for his Leaving Cert at the Royal and Prior School in Raphoe at the time.

BJ Banda was born in South Africa, though you wouldn’t be able to tell judging by his strong Donegal accent alone. Brought up in Johannesburg by Zambian parents, he moved to Ireland as a young child and has spent over a decade living in Letterkenny since.

It soon became apparent that the youngster had a talent for football and he ultimately joined Finn Harps’ youth set-up in 2015, after catching the eye playing for local side Letterkenny Rovers. Having subsequently impressed for the club’s U19 side, he was soon called up to the first-team squad amid the crucial end-of-season First Division run-in.

Consequently, on 19 September, Banda made his debut against Cobh Ramblers. A month later, he ended the regular season with his first goals for the club — a brace against Wexford Youths.

Yet ahead of his side’s relegation-promotion playoff, not many were expecting such an inexperienced player to have much of an influence on what were Finn Harps’ two biggest games of the season. Indeed, by then, Banda had just four matches at senior level under his belt.

Many fans were therefore surprised when Banda was brought on in the 63rd minute of the first-leg against Limerick at Markets Field.

And unfortunately, the gamble didn’t really pay off. With the visitors trailing 1-0 and badly needing a goal, Banda was presented with an excellent opportunity. Finding himself through on goal, the young striker rounded goalkeeper Freddy Hall but missed what The42‘s match report at the time described as a “sitter”.

It was easy to be cynical in hindsight and suggest Horgan was foolish to bring on a virtually untried teenager for such a crucial game. The match, some believed, had come too soon for a player who was not legally old enough to drink alcohol at the time. And there was an element of chance involved too — it is unlikely Banda would have gotten the opportunity to play had it not been for an injury to regular striker Nathan Boyle.

Consequently, the pressure was amplified when Banda was introduced in the second leg. Coming on for a Finn Harps icon in McHugh — someone the youngster describes as an “inspiration” and who he regularly seeks advice from — was no easy feat in front of a packed, nerve-ridden crowd in Ballybofey.

Yet then it happened. The goal that, if Banda were to retire tomorrow, people will still remember and congratulate him for in years to come.

The moment is captured in a YouTube video that would subsequently go viral. With three minutes to play before a dreaded penalty shootout scenario, the ball is played into the box and Banda narrowly fails to connect with it initially, as the defender manages to temporarily clear his lines.

However, the camera stays on Banda. He moves swiftly and intelligently to get an inch of space on his Limerick marker. The ball is played into the box again and within an instant, the youngster has written his name into the Finn Harps record books with a deft headed finish, in the process sending the home crowd into raptures and securing their first promotion to the top flight since 2008.

Daithi Ramsay / YouTube

“We went up to Market’s Field and I missed a one-on-one so everyone was doubting me,” Banda tells The42, recalling that missed chance in the first leg.

I had to prove to myself and to everybody else that I actually could do it.

“The ball came in nicely for me and it just happened so quick from then — I took my chance from there and look where we are now.

It sort of put us on the map. People began to recognise that we’re actually a big club.

“It was good for the club and good for myself — people actually started to take notice (of us).”

Thousands of fans, some of whom were in tears, stormed the field and embraced the unlikely match-winner at the final whistle. His proud parents greeted him too.

Finn Harps match winner BJ Banda and his mum, Maranda BJ Banda and his mum, Maranda, after the 2015 promotion-relegation playoff. Presseye / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO Presseye / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO / Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

It was a momentous night also for Finn Harps, a club founded in 1954 and elected to the league as recently as 1969, and a team who have not always been an easy club to support. After life as a League of Ireland team began inauspiciously with a 10-2 loss against Shamrock Rovers, critics questioned the wisdom of their inclusion among the top clubs in the country. And while things have improved five decades on, there have been far more lows than highs in the intervening years.

The 2015 promotion was consequently a moment of rare ecstasy for the club, right up there with their greatest achievement to date — the 1974 FAI Cup final triumph. Since their heyday in the 1970s, they have endured struggles with debt, appearing only sporadically in the Premier Division and invariably struggling against the better-resourced top sides in the country.

And Banda’s famous goal is the kind of fairytale moment that only a competition such as the League of Ireland could provide. An English Premier League club bringing on a virtually untested teenager for the biggest game of their season is unthinkable, and even in Irish football, it is quite extraordinary. Banda’s story, therefore, is as improbable as it is special.

Ollie Horgan A relative unknown prior to his appointment, Ollie Horgan has been lauded for the work done since taking over as Finn Harps boss. Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

The achievement was vindication too for Horgan. His appointment as manager two years previously came as somewhat of a surprise. He was one of 12 applicants hopeful of succeeding Peter Hutton as manager, and ultimately overcame competition from more high-profile candidates, including ex-West Ham and Liverpool defender Julian Dicks.

Horgan, a Galway native in his mid-40s, had never managed a League of Ireland team before. His only other jobs had been as coach of the Republic of Ireland schoolboys and Fanad United in the Ulster Senior League.

Nevertheless, the risk paid off. Horgan immediately set about introducing a more professionalised set up within the club. Success wasn’t exactly instant though. In his first season in charge, Finn Harps finished fifth in the First Division, 17 points off promotion. There were signs of progress, however. The club reached the 2014 FAI Cup semi-final, their best run in the competition since their memorable 2-1 loss in the 1999 final against Bray, after an incredible second replay. Unfortunately, the game ended in a humiliating 6-1 loss to St Pat’s at Richmond Park in front of the RTÉ TV cameras.

Yet the club recovered from this embarrassment with customary resilience. In 2015, Horgan led his side to promotion on a shoestring budget, building a squad comprising a mix of talented youngsters like Banda and wily veterans such as McHugh amid a season culminating in that special moment created by the former.

So a year on from THAT goal, the progress of Banda and Finn Harps has been steady rather than spectacular. The Donegal side last season finished 10th, nine points clear of the relegation spots — a commendable achievement given their relatively meagre budget and one which resulted in Horgan being rewarded with a contract extension.

BJ Banda Now 18, Banda made seven first-team appearances for Finn Harps in the Premier Division towards the end of last season. Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

Meanwhile, following the highs of that night in November at Finn Park, Banda began the 2016 season back with the U19s side — a reminder that his potential has yet to be fully realised despite that late moment of magic against Limerick. Nonetheless, towards the end of the season, he was brought back into the first-team reckoning, appearing seven times as his side secured their top-flight status.

This season, however, merely staying up is likely to prove as difficult as ever for Finn Harps, with even a newly promoted side in Limerick strengthening considerably and bringing in players of the calibre of Chiedozie Ogbene from Cork.

We know we’re the underdogs in the league,” Banda says. “It’s going to be a tough year for us. We’re going to have to battle and see what we can do.

“(Playing in the Premier Division last year) was really different. It was a big step up from the First Division, because the teams are much better, and we’re a far younger side. It was different to play in, but we managed anyway, and we’ll see what happens this year.”

Banda’s first-team opportunities may have been limited last year, but at 18, there will likely be plenty more chances to come, and his youthful optimism remains palpable. Asked about targets for this season, he confidently replies: “I want to get double figures (in goals).”

Moreover, with McHugh — Finn Harps’ iconic striker and the fifth highest goalscorer in the League of Ireland’s history — now retired, there is a regular spot in attack up for grabs.

I’d always watch Kevin McHugh,” Banda adds. “I don’t like to say that too much, but I’d always take notes on him.

“He will be a big loss in the dressing room, all those wee tips he’d give you.

But he still comes to some of the training sessions, he always gives positive vibes. He’s always there on the phone (if I need to speak to him).

“He just says ‘play your own game and have fun’. He tells you what you need to know and to go do your job.”

But not all Banda’s memories of McHugh are happy ones. The youngster was right there beside his fellow striker during a horrendous accident last October, which resulted in the former Derry City man losing his finger.

It occurred when McHugh got his wedding ring caught in a fence that he was in the process of leaping over while overseeing a coaching session of young footballers in Donegal.

The subsequent operation could not save his finger and McHugh, who had been planning to retire at the culmination of the season, had to end his career three games earlier than anticipated.

“I looked at my club mates, Dessie McGlinchy and BJ Banda, and they were sheet white and in shock, so I knew it was bad,” McHugh later recalled.

I had to hop back over the fence and bring BJ round because I needed them to coach the kids.”

Recalling the incident, Banda adds: “I was standing right beside him. It was a gruesome thing to happen. I didn’t actually know what had happened to him, I thought he just slipped and sliced his hand open. Until we just looked on the top of the fence and saw the finger just laying there with the wedding ring still on.”

Looking ahead to the future, Banda says he dreams of playing for a top club in Europe someday, though he is well aware of the pitfalls of going abroad at a young age — even a striker as talented as Sean Maguire, the League of Ireland’s top scorer last season, found it difficult to adapt during a brief stint with West Ham.

Here in Finn Harps, there wouldn’t be so much money, but they bring in mostly local players,” Banda adds. “So it gives the coaches a chance to actually see us local boys. They give you a chance and you have to just grab it.”

Everton v AFC Bournemouth - Premier League - Goodison Park "He’s strong on the ball and left-footed like myself" -- BJ Banda is a big fan of Everton striker Romelu Lukaku. Martin Rickett Martin Rickett

Of the world’s top strikers, he is a big fan of Romelu Lukaku, and sees himself as a similar type of player to the Everton star, even if he has a long way to go before reaching the Belgian international’s level.

He’s strong on the ball and left-footed like myself. I can see a resemblance,” he adds.

Having completely his Leaving Cert, Banda is now doing a degree in Sports Performance and Coaching at the Letterkenny Institute of Technology, as he hopes to stay in the game beyond retirement as a player.

My classes finish at about three o’clock on a weekday and then training is about eight o’clock. It’s not so bad until you’ve got matches on the weekend and assignments to do. So sometimes, it catches up to you.”

But while regularly going on nights out and drinking copiously is the norm for most students, Banda knows that he cannot afford to fall into this lifestyle if he is to realise his dream of playing football at the highest level.

Especially during the season, I see all my friends going out and having fun — it sucks sometimes, but you’ve just got to move on through it. You can always go out and enjoy yourself in the off-season and during the half-season break. You just have to put your head down and work — it benefits you more.”

And if the promising teenage striker can enjoy a few more nights like the one in Ballybofey against Limerick just over a year ago over the course of his career, such sacrifices will most definitely be worthwhile.

The42 is on Instagram! Tap the button below on your phone to follow us!

‘You go from winning Player of the Season to knowing next week you’ll be collecting your dole’>

City boss expresses frustration as key defender departs on eve of new season>

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.