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Dublin: 12 °C Friday 22 February, 2019
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'I came back and sat my Junior Cert again... I would say to any kid going over now, concentrate on your schoolwork first'

Finn Harps defender Ciaran Coll recalls his early days at Hearts as well as looking ahead to next week’s pivotal play-off matches.

Finn Harps' Ciaran Coll celebrates with fans.
Finn Harps' Ciaran Coll celebrates with fans.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IF FINN HARPS overcome Limerick next week over two legs and gain entry into the Premier Division, it’s safe to say it will mean more to one man than most.

In the League of Ireland, stability is frequently elusive regardless of the team in question. Coming across a one-club man, therefore, is like finding a needle in a haystack.

However, aside from a brief spell as a teenager at Hearts, Ciaran Coll has spent his entire senior career at Finn Harps.

The 27-year-old full-back was granted a testimonial this season after 10 years at the club, much to the intrigue of customers at the VIP Clothing store that his aunt and uncle own, and where Coll works when he’s not focusing on what he regards as his main job as a footballer.

He tells The42: “People in the shop were asking the same question: ‘Did you ever think you were going to last 10 years at the club?’ I said: ‘Not really.’ But you enjoy the club and everything else.”

Coll has experienced plenty of highs and lows during that time and before then too. Like his father and brother, he represented Kildrum Tigers in the Ulster Senior League as a youngster. And having impressed at underage level, Coll joined Scottish side Hearts shortly after his 16th birthday.

The experience in Britain was bittersweet, however. Training from 7.30am to 12pm on a regular basis was fine, but killing time for the rest of the day proved difficult. As is often the case with Irish youngsters who try their luck across the water at a young age, homesickness became an issue.

“It was hard to do anything because you were homesick. You didn’t want to go into town, into Edinburgh city, because you felt lost,” he explains. 

Despite his difficulties over there, Coll appreciates the experience he gained playing abroad. He joined a Paul Hegarty-managed Finn Harps prior to the 2009 season and the teenager swiftly became a regular fixture in the starting XI having made his debut on 7 March against Kildare County.

After returning to Ireland, Coll was making progress off-the-field too. Having learned from personal experience, he urges young aspiring footballers to prioritise education over faint promises of stardom.

“I came back and sat my Junior Cert again,” he says.

I actually signed [with Hearts] before I’d moved away and I had to do a few more days at school. It was in the middle of my Junior Cert and I didn’t have much concentration on the Junior Cert then because I knew it was gone.

“I would say to any kid going over now, concentrate on your schoolwork first, because if the football doesn’t work out, you’ve something to fall back on — a good education.

“I [did] my Leaving Cert then, so I did, straight back to Deele College in Raphoe. I just followed school the whole way through. I signed with Finn Harps and stayed in school until I was finished there.”

Paul Hegarty Paul Hegarty was the manager when Coll signed for Finn Harps ahead of the 2009 season. Source: Presseye/Lorcacn Doherty/INPHO

Another significant challenge was around corner though. The progress Coll made in his debut campaign was undermined by a second season to forget — a cruciate injury suffered during a match against Limerick limited him to just one league game in 2010.

The defender credits his father and brother in particular for helping him get through this difficult period, adding: “If it wasn’t for them picking me up here or there, I probably wouldn’t have been where I am today.

“When I done my cruciate, the club looked after me extremely well. But it was my dad that was taking me to Dublin and taking me to Belfast, and picking me up from my operation. So if it wasn’t for them, [the subsequent success I enjoyed] wouldn’t have actually happened.” 

After this serious setback, Coll returned to the first team and played 21 matches in the 2011 campaign. He was determined to repay the club and his team-mates for the faith they had shown in him.

“Conor Gethins and all were there the first time I was there and the one lad I really looked up to was Kevin McHugh. He just kept me going. We were training together. When he got his testimonial, I just said: ‘Right, I’m going to try to stick with this club, because they looked after me with my injury and they’ve been really good to me. I’d like to get a chance now to show that I can play too.”

Almost a decade on and things haven’t worked out too badly for Coll — not that there weren’t times where he wasn’t tempted to move elsewhere.

“I was at Kevin McHugh’s dinner dance, his testimonial. Stephen Kenny approached me, but one of the chair members at Harps came up and said ‘he’s going nowhere’.

There were rumours last year that I was meant to go to Coleraine, but I heard nothing from Coleraine. When rumour starts, it can pass on to the whole place. But the Dundalk one with Stephen Kenny was the only one where a manager spoke to me. It would have been great if I made the move, but I’m still happy where I am.”

As one of the longest-serving players in the League of Ireland (Coll mentions Derry City’s Ger Doherty as a rare example of a player who rivals him for longevity at one particular club), the left-back has stuck with the Donegal side through some difficult times. He joined a club who had just been relegated to the First Division, but they rarely threatened to gain promotion for years thereafter. Their fortune changed in 2015, however, when a famous BJ Banda goal in a play-off against the same opponents they meet on Monday saw them make their long-awaited return to the top flight.

However, the club’s two seasons in the Premier Division contained more spills than thrills. In 2016, they finished just above the relegation spots in 10th, while they went down the following year amid a dismal campaign that saw them come 11th out of 12 teams.

Much has changed since Harps’ 2015 promotion success. Kevin McHugh, their veteran striker, retired a few weeks before he was planning to after losing a finger in a freak accident. And club captain Coll is now one of the main inspirational figures that youngsters turn to for support.

The club have responded impressively to last year’s setback. An impressive run has seen them go 15 games unbeaten including league and play-off matches, last tasting defeat in the First Division as far back as 15 June against UCD.

Finn Harps match winner BJ Banda celebrates at the final whistle BJ Banda scored the pivotal goal the last time Finn Harps were promoted in 2015. Source: Presseye/Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

Following this morale-boosting form, Coll and co find themselves two games away from the promised land. There is excitement in Ballybofey — a record attendance for the season of approximately 2,200 fans turned up at Finn Park to see them beat Drogheda 2-0 last Friday, and they are hoping to get a similar crowd for Monday’s first leg against Limerick.

There is also minor frustration in the town — the PFAI First Division Team of the Year was announced on Tuesday, and despite the club finishing second in the league, not one Finn Harps player made the cut.

“It’s the talk of Donegal at the minute, it’s the talk of the whole place,” Coll says. “When I was working, there were a few supporters coming in saying why aren’t the likes of Paddy McCourt not on it, Ciarán Gallagher, Sam Todd. When you finish second in the First Division and there’s not one player in it, it’s disappointing. But we didn’t pick it.”

Beating Limerick over two legs would provide a serious financial boost to a club that have often struggled over the years. The Shannonsiders themselves have had some well-documented issues in relation to funding this season and will be determined to stay in the Premier Division to temper these problems as much as anything else.

Despite Tommy Barrett’s side winning just seven and losing 22 of their 35 top-flight matches this seasons, Coll believes his team will be the underdogs on Monday.

They’re the Premier Division side,” he says, while pointing to injuries to a few Finn Harps players as further grounds for pessimism. “The way we look at it, maybe we can go there and maybe they’re on a bad day and we’re on a good day. 

“They should expect to be a good step ahead of us. They have the experience and everything else.”

But whatever happens next Monday and Friday, Coll is looking forward to “a few weeks in the sun” once the season finishes.

“There’s nothing as good as a wee break. But when you’re doing something you love, you don’t really want much of a break, especially on the run we are on where we’re winning games. That could end on Monday night, but please God it doesn’t.”

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Paul Fennessy

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