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On the road to Ballybofey: Salsa dancing, keeping the faith and loved ones in Ukraine

The42 joins Finn Harps teammates Dave Webster and Bastien Hery on their journey from Dublin to Donegal, as well as hearing from some on the coalface of the great League of Ireland survivors.

Dave Webster (left) and Bastien Hery are ready for the long road with Finn Harps this season.
Dave Webster (left) and Bastien Hery are ready for the long road with Finn Harps this season.

BASTIEN HERY TAKES his socks off near Ardee.

He slides his green flip flops off one by one, then whips the sweaty, sticky white pair from his feet.

“Fuck sake, Bastien, we’ve got a guest here. Have a bit of respect,” Dave Webster laughs.

“No way, man. I was roasting. They need to come off,” Hery replies.

So, he rolls the socks up in a ball and puts them in the pocket of his hoodie.

Now he can get back to concentrating on the road.

Webster smiles in the passenger seat. “I love these journeys. Three hours up, three hours back. No one would do it if it was a shit dressing room and you hated it. It’s not the money bringing anyone back. It’s the love of the game, that’s it.”

Hery nods. “It’s true, I would go anywhere for football just to play. I have always loved Brazil, I would love to play there still, of course. But now we go to Ballybofey instead. Of course you have to love it.”

image4 Dave Webster (left) and Bastien Hery en route to Donegal.

This Thursday afternoon has gotten off to a bad start for Hery. “Oh, Webby, I forgot to listen for the Cash Machine number. It was something like €20,000 the last time!”

He is talking about the giveaway from radio station Newstalk, in which listeners must know the exact total — down to the last cent — of the money up for grabs.

“How much did you spend texting in the last time?” Webster wonders.

“I think it was only around €7.50,” Hery insists.

The42 is in the back seat of the red Opel Astra. A pair of dried, mucky Puma boots are on the floor behind the driver’s side and gear bags with training equipment and footballs fill the boot – not to mention an old Bohemians jersey from Hery’s unsuccessful stint at Dalymount Park last season, which also included a loan spell at Derry City.

“That is how football goes, you know. You don’t take it personally. I never got going, really,” Hery says.

He puts his flops down to continue the journey.

image7 Hery fills up with petrol.

For him it began in Torcy, a suburb 20 kilometres east of Paris where he grew up with his two older sisters and his parents. “It’s 10 minutes from Disneyland, two stops on the train,” he explains.

“Life growing up was all about playing football. I had arguments with my mam – she worked where they produce newspapers and magazines – because she wanted me to get a proper job and work. My Dad is an accountant. It was easy to get a job in Disneyland because it’s so close but I never wanted that.”

He learned his trade at Paris Saint-Germain’s academy but was released at 18 before he could sign professional terms. “There are days when you feel done with football, you never want to be part of it again. Then the next day you feel better, you remember why you love it and play it. I am sure it is the same for all footballers.”

Webster’s childhood in Firhouse was similar. He remembers his dad taking him to the park to master free kicks, hanging a tyre up for target practice. He was obsessed by David Beckham, cherished a pair of white Adidas Predators and still loves Manchester United because they are his father’s club.

“My grandad was an engineer and worked in places like Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe. My dad listened to a United match on the radio growing up and was hooked ever since. But he still wasn’t happy when we were putting new wallpaper up in our sitting room and I got there first by covering the walls with all my United posters – Cantona, Beckham, Bruce and Pallister everywhere!

Webster had a week’s trial with West Ham in his mid teens when he was a Shelbourne schoolboy, travelling to London with Lorcan Fitzgerald who is now with Wexford in the First Division, and Graham Carey, whose career has taken him to CSKA Sofia in Bulgaria.

image0 (1) Webster tucks into some pasta and chicken before training.

Both Hery and Webster are League of Ireland stalwarts; between them, they have played for eight clubs – nine if you include Hery’s time at Linfield north of the border.

Finn Harps is their latest port of call. Teammates again after sharing a dressing room together at Waterford in 2018.

“Journeymen,” Webster smiles.

St Patrick’s Athletic at home in Finn Park is the latest stop – somewhat of a family affair given his cousin, Eoin Doyle, is the visiting striker coming up directly against him in the heart of the defence.

“My dad will come up for the game, I’d love if our grandad could see it too. Eoin is already back to being my nanny’s favourite, though. She’s been to see him a couple of times in Dublin.”

Webster and Hery are part of an eclectic squad assembled by manager Ollie Horgan.

“And we have some farmers too,” Hery jokes.

“What?”

Who?” Webster asks?

“Gav [Mulreaney], he is a farmer. His family have a farm,” Hery points out.

bastien-hery-jake-keegan-and-david-webster Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Knowing such details carries even greater weight in terms of building relationships given Harps’ squad is a mismatch of local lads, imports and out-of-towners like Hery and Webster who travel.

The latter is 31-years-old, the captain and in his third season at the club.

“He is the oldest, that is why he is captain,” Hery teases.

“What? Fuck off, Bastien,” Webster replies in a flash, laughing as the conversation takes another tangent as we approach Monaghan town.

“My head is gone, Webby, I am 30 this month. I don’t want to be 30. It has come too quick,” Hery rues.

I’m loving it since I turned 30, I’ve had a new lease of life,” Webster adds, attempting to offer solace. “Got so fit I was playing right wing-back for a while. I felt 19 again.”

Hery is prompted to recall his time in the English lower leagues with Rochdale, Carlisle and Accrington after a spell with Sheffield Wednesday’s U23s.

“I remember getting sick after a pre-season with Keith Curle [at Carlisle]. We did army work, carrying logs on our back, I swam out one kilometre in the sea. I ended up on my back.”

Webster seizes his moment. “You are a machine, and you love the salsa dancing!”

“Oh yes, Webby,” Hery beams. “It was the same as when I was a kid. I always danced. When I signed for Limerick, the hotel I stayed in with a couple of other players from England and Scotland, there were salsa classes in there on Friday nights and I would go in and enjoy the class after a match. It was good fun. I like to go out and do different things.

“You know, when I was in France, I never even imagined speaking English. I was terrible. Then an agent rang me after I was released by PSG, I was actually in Disneyland with friends, and the next day I moved to Sheffield Wednesday.”

“With no English at all?” Webster asks.

“None, I learned because I met a girl,” Hery continues. “I think that’s the best way to learn, you know. I met a girl and soon the English words flew out of me. She was Colombian, that’s where her family is from, but she was born in England and she had a pure Sheffield accent so that’s how I learned. It was better

“And you know where we went on our first date? Salsa dancing!”

ollie-horgan Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Webster takes over driving duties after Hery fills up with petrol near Monaghan.

For the first couple of years, the defender ventured up from Dublin twice a week for training, stayed over on a Thursday night after the last session and rested before a game on the Friday.

There was a full car for the last campaign, but following the departure of 11 players from Horgan’s squad, it is now just Webster and Hery.

This season Webster’s travelling schedule has also been altered with the support of the manager following a change in his full-time employment circumstances in the label department of an engineering company closer to home.

“Me and my partner have been trying to get a mortgage, we have a young daughter and we are back in with my parents. We have to try get things sorted soon.”

That need to secure their own family home became even more pronounced following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “My partner, Olya, she is Ukrainian.

“Her mam is here in Ireland and so is her step-sister so they are grand. They live south of Odessa, two hours away, and she has been in contact with her dad there every day. She has uncles, cousins, godparents are a big deal in Ukraine too and they are over there.

“It’s a waiting game, it looks as if the Russian troops have gone north but then there are stories of tanks coming and submarines in the Black Sea with troops ready to take Odessa. You just want to get the right information to know people are safe.

“Of course you wish you could open the doors of your own home to them and take them in here. The honour the Ukrainian people have shown so far, it’s incredible,” Webster continues.

“But they have their lives there. Her nanny is 80-odd so imagine what it would be like for her to have to leave her home at this stage. It’s terrible to even consider.”

image2

Hery has his own personal circumstances to contend with. He and his partner recently bought a house in Bray, yet he has a five-year-old daughter from a previous relationship that has remained in Paris with her mother.

“It’s tough. I will be home next week to see her. I ring her every day on FaceTime. If don’t see her for a day or two, I don’t feel right. She keeps asking me when she can come over and go to the football. I will get her room done in our house, have it all ready for her so it is nice and we can go to a match and see me play.”

Horgan’s understanding of such circumstances are part of the reason he has been able to continually mould teams capable of defying the odds to survive in the Premier Division.

He puts trust in you,” Webster explains. “You don’t want to abuse that so you work harder for him, you want to be a success for him. Ollie is someone who will do anything for you. Sure he was ready to go to Madagascar for Bastien.”

That is where Hery’s grandfather is from, and who the midfielder has represented at international level over the last couple of years. “He rang me when I was in Paris first and said he would be there the next day to sign me. I said ‘Ollie, relax, I will be back in Ireland in a couple of weeks’. He is a good man.”

Webster continues: “Ollie asked me about Bastien and I said, ‘Go for it’, but I was winding him up saying I think he went back to Madagascar instead. Ollie was like, ‘What? I’ll go there and get him. I fucking will’.”

If you are getting a call from Ollie Horgan it is probably a last resort in League of Ireland terms.

“My phone had stopped ringing before he got in touch. Before I would get four or five offers, before I came here there were none and Ollie was still great with me,” Webster says.

“It’s like everything in life. If someone is doing good by you, you want to give it back. We’re lucky here in that sense.”

And as the car pulls into Letterkenny Community Centre, passing by the Only Food and Sauces chip van overlooking the astro turf training pitch, Webster and Hery prepare to get work.

It’s 5.49pm on the Thursday evening – almost exactly three hours after departing Dublin at 2.45pm – the day before the Pat’s match, in plenty of time to start getting ready for the 6.15pm start.

By 9pm they are back on the road to Dublin, getting back to their beds for midnight.

Both will be up for work in their respective jobs in the capital before setting back off for Donegal ahead of the 8pm kick off.

image0

***

While Horgan is front and certain as manager, next season will mark a decade in charge, behind the scenes there are people ensuring Harps are able to survive. Board member Ivan Harvey is one such volunteer.

At the start of the pandemic he helped Webster get work as a security guard as part of one of his contracts in Dublin to keep money coming in. “Two days a week, 12-hour shifts. It was such a big help and even to know that Ivan was thinking of me, it’s hard to explain how grateful you are to people,” he explains.

Hery also had a short stint working in security recently, spending two weeks in the Vaccination Centre at Citywest Hotel before taking on a different role coaching football in schools near his home in Bray.

It’s 5.30pm on matchday and Harvey is waiting by the ‘ALDI gate’ at Finn Park. Hery soon follows, driving his red Astra on to the terracing.

“Where will I park it?” he asks.

“Around the front,” Harvey tells him, calling Hery back to blow a kiss.

“I’ve only known him since this season but he is a good guy, respectful and he is working hard,” Harvey says.

image0 (3) Board member Ivan Harvey.

He has been a fan more than 40 years but on the board for the last three. His duties right now are to make sure each corner flag is in place.

At the start of the pandemic things were far more grave. Harps raised €34,000 through a GoFundMe page, a two-car draw boosting coffers further.

“That sustained through it,” Harvey says. “Being a fan-owned club is hard. Maybe people think we are always begging, always looking for something. But to put a package on the field that is what we have to do.

“It takes a toll, we’d all love to walk away but there is no one coming to follow on and do what we do.”

Serious financial support has also been forthcoming for the development of their long-awaited new stadium at nearby Stranorlar.

In April of last year the government announced a provisional allocation of €3.9 million to the FAI under the Large Scale Sport Infrastructure Fund for Harps to get things moving.

It will happen in the next few months, by April, May, June,” Harvey insists. “Now people are probably fed up hearing that cause it’s been said for the last 13 years. We do still need another €900,000 but it will be completed for the 2024 season. We need to step up and there are big changes coming here.”

Some developments are already coming to fruition, with season tickets sales at record levels, the bulk of which have been through the addition of a €5 children’s pass for the campaign.

It’s seen income in that area more than double, and when 11 of the squad departed over the winter Horgan opened his contacts book and travelled to finalise deals wherever he could.

“See that man, he could be anywhere in Europe,” Harvey laughs. “You could find him anywhere trying to make Harps better, bringing the club on. Ollie Horgan never stops.”

A local reporter covering the game can attest to that. Horgan was his Maths teacher in secondary school in Letterkenny 20 years ago and still teaches now while overseeing Harps.

ollie-horgan Harps boss Ollie Horgan on Friday night. Source: Evan Logan/INPHO

When the team sheets for the game are handed out, an indication of the lengths he has gone to for new recruits are clear.

Spanish defender Jose Carillo, an arrival from the Slovakian league, started at left back beside Webster while Elie Nzeyi, the French-born, DR Congo-qualified midfielder partnered Hery, with Mayo man Ryan Connolly slightly deeper.

Croatian centre forward Filip Mihaljevic led the line, ably supported by Yoyo Mahdy, the Egyptian-Irish attacker.

On the bench, the farmer Mulreany was back-up goalkeeper, with the Turkish-Dutch defender Erol Erdal Alkan taking a seat with him.

American forward Eric McWoods was there, too, replacing Hery after 66 minutes, by which point the visitors had taken a 1-0 lead against the run of play, with a second coming 12 minutes from time to leave Harps bottom of the table with two points from their opening four games.

Webster almost broke the deadlock in the first half with a sweet half volley from a corner that struck the outside of the post, the attempted clearance coming back to him and a second attempt skied over.

“I think it killed one of the sheep behind the goal,” he jokes after, before crawling back into the passenger seat where Hery is waiting to set off.

“I thought it was in man,” he begins. “It was a good effort.”

It’s close to 10.45pm when the car leaves Ballybofey and it will be after 1.30am when they return to Dublin.

It’s nights like this that the game would break your heart, but also give it enough hope to keep the faith.

Harps had their chances to win, yet remain bottom of the table without a win and just one goal scored.

Hery pulls up LiveScore to check the damage. “Don’t be looking at that now,” Webster tells him. “No one has pulled away from us.”

Neither are active on Twitter so there is no scrolling to examine the fallout from the night’s games.

Still, Webster goes through the results and sees that Sean Boyd, a teammate and passenger in the car last season, has scored a late equaliser for new club Shelbourne against Dundalk.

“It’s great for him,” Webster says. “He’s worked hard to keep going.”

WhatsApp is hopping. The defender is sent the clips of the two goals that Harps conceded and the inquest begins. Then a message comes through from his cousin, Doyle, whose header in the second half struck the post and bounced off goalkeeper Mark Anthony McGinley to make it 2-0.

“Wasn’t his goal, was an OG,” Webster insists.

Doyle has forwarded on a screenshot of a message he sent to their Nanny Rita. It’s a picture of a nasty, bloody gash on his leg telling her, “Look what your grandson did to me tonight.”

Webster laughs: “The fucker never stops moving, he’s always on the go.”

That lightens the mood somewhat — getting stuck behind the Pat’s team coach for a few miles doesn’t — yet there is a sense of disappointment.

Hery is focused on the road, his full beams and windshield wipers being kept busy on a dark, rainy drive back to Dublin.

It’s after nights like this he thinks again about getting his UEFA B licence sorted or turning his attention to education and becoming a Special Needs Assistant for children who require additional help in school.

All I know is football but I would also like to work and help with children,” he explains. “I want to see what I could do about that.”

Webster, too, has had moments to consider the future, and he is already aware of a pretty big sacrifice to come later this season when he will have to miss Ireland international Enda Stevens’ — still one of his closet friends from their school days — wedding as it clashes with a game.

bastien-hery Hery in Source: Evan Logan/INPHO

“That’s the game, that’s what you have to be prepared for. As a squad, we’ve got to stick together,” Webster says. “It is going to be a long fucking season. And we are going to have to lean on each other and know the fella you are leaning on will be there to support you.

“There will be days where we will be shit, this wasn’t one of those night. We played well and created chances. But there could be more shite nights than good and it’s all about knowing you will be there to dig out and help the fella beside you.

“That’s what the game is about, dragging lads along, all helping each other and there for each other on the pitch. That filters down from Ollie and you know there are people here who do everything and anything for you, all you are expected to do for them is try and make them happy with three points.

“Ultimately, we all just want the club to be successful, that’s football. It brings people together.”

“Look at us, mate,” Hery interjects. “We’re here together.”

“Exactly, still playing when we are 40,” Webster laughs.

“We can try,” Hery says.

“We can start our own team then,” Webster continues. “Every engine light on my body will be flashing then. All of the warning lights will be on.”

They will be back in the car together this morning to make an early afternoon training session in Letterkenny ahead of tomorrow’s derby away to Sligo Rovers.

More miles to come and challenges to face.

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