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'When things aren’t going well it's hard to stay positive. We’re fighting for our lives'

Finn Harps captain Keith Cowan on his side’s relegation scrap, staying positive amid poor results and playing into his mid thirties.

Finn Harps captain Keith Cowan.
Finn Harps captain Keith Cowan.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

THE SEASON STARTED with considerable hope for Ollie Horgan and Finn Harps.

Having secured promotion to the Premier Division alongside UCD thanks to a play-off victory over Limerick, the mood around Ballybofey was positive.

Experienced winger Raf Cretaro came in during the off-season and many of those who had helped in the push back to the top flight after 2017′s disappointing relegation had signed up for another year.

Their 1-0 defeat to Bohemians in the season’s opener was quickly forgotten and the positives harvested from what was admittedly a good Harps display. Next up came Dundalk, staggering punch-drunk after a disappointing opening-day draw with Sligo Rovers and a Leinster Senior Cup defeat to lowly Athlone Town.

Horgan’s side took their chance against the reigning Premier Division champions and carved out at 1-1 draw at Finn Park.

From there, their fortunes took a turn for the worse.

In their following 10 league games, Harps suffered nine defeats on the bounce. The beatings ranged from close losses to Sligo and Cork City to capitulations at the hands of Waterford FC and fellow strugglers, UCD.

“You try keep things as positive as possible,” Harps captain Keith Cowan tells The42. “The conversation before the season is that we try and hit the ground running.

“We wanted to try get points early on and maybe catch teams on the hop with things they’re not expecting from us.

Maybe that was the case when we drew with Dundalk. We got a point there where maybe we should have gotten three. We had chances to win the game. We’ve definitely been very competitive in every game. 

“It’s easy to say we weren’t too far off in most games. That’s a bit of a cliché. But we have been and we have been competitive. That gives you confidence within a group.

If you’re going out every week and getting beaten 3-0 and 4-0 and you’re nowhere near it, the confidence will drain straightaway. But the fact the performances haven’t been bad. We’ve sort of been architects of our own downfall at times, making mistakes in certain areas.

“At this level, you’re going to get punished. In the First Division last year, you might have made a similar mistake and got away with it. But now the calibre of player you end up playing against, as soon as you make the mistake the ball is in the back of the net. That’s where it can be difficult to lift yourself.”

The positives have been there, the 33-year-old secondary school teacher admits, but coming into the season Cowan can understand why they have found themselves in this position.

“I think it is [where they expected to be in the table], yeah. With UCD coming up as champions last year and then looking at the league – the professional side of it, the teams that are training full time and who have those budgets available – I think if we had of been offered this place at this stage, you may have maybe taken it.

“Although UCD have a few games in hand on us, I feel it’s better to have the points on the board. A couple of good results in the last few games after the break has really given us a bit of confidence. I think we were definitely struggling up to that.”

Their fellow promotion rivals have failed to cope with the demands of the league and, like Harps, only have three wins from their opening 21 league games.

To add to this, bigger clubs have been sniffing around the Dublin club’s best talent. Earlier this year, Manchester City were interested in bringing Neil Farrugia and Liam Scales into their U23 side. Farrugia has since joined Permier Division title challengers Shamrock Rovers.

Cowan says he can relate to the challenges a club like UCD face, considering the Donegal outfit themselves are only a part-time club.

“I suppose we had a tough start in terms of the squad that we had and not being full time. You’ve got guys getting up and going to work in the morning.

We were pushed into a few midweek games due to European competition. We had to go to St Pat’s and Rovers midweek, which with a small squad took its toll early on. A few guys were pushing themselves early on and ended up picking up injuries.

“That’s sort of been the case when we were struggling. The squad is fairly thin, you were giving a lot of the [younger] guys chances. Which is great for them. It’s great to experience Premier League football, but I suppose when you’re looking to stay in the league you want your more experienced players available. That hadn’t been the case up until the break.

“Since then we’ve had a couple of guys come back in and they have made a difference.”

The club have had to be savvy when bringing in players to the club, making Finn Park an attractive prospect while remaining within the confines of tight budgetary restrictions.

Kevin Toner with Raffael Cretaro Raf Cretaro (right) has been influential for Finn Harps this season. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

The defender says that money isn’t the only thing that leaves the Ulster club at a disadvantage while recruiting.

“The great thing that a team like Bohs, for example, and a lot of other teams have – as well as a good management structure – is geography. It’s not too difficult to attract someone to Dublin. It might be difficult to attract a player, young or experienced, to Donegal.

They might have a job, a wife or kids if you’re looking down the more experienced route. It seems to be that a lot of the Dublin clubs can offer them a path into education for younger players.

“The likes of UCD can offer that when they bring young players in. The fact as well that all the teams bringing in players are established LOI clubs. It’s difficult to attract someone from the manager’s point of view. Ollie has been at Harps a long time, but he might not be an established Premier Division manager. I think he’s done a great job with us and he continues to do a great job with us.

“Hopefully he’ll stay with Harps for a long time. People who buy into his philosophy generally seem to reap certain rewards. Whether it’s a young player that wants to find their way in the game or players that certain teams have overlooked – that might be viewed as ‘past their best’.

He’s been able to get them in. Raf Cretaro has been an excellent example of that. He’s been in this year and been excellent, a real professional. He’s someone, that even at my stage of my career, has given me an extra lift. Makes you think that you might not be at the end of your career quite yet.

“When you see Raf do it and the amount of professionalism he brings to it – he’s just excellent.

“Barry Molloy as well who was at Derry City for years and wasn’t given a new contract. Ollie brings him in and was excellent for us a few years ago. He was a big reason we stayed up in the division.

There are positives when you come to a club like this. Management here will give people chances but then again when you have the pull of not being an established Premier Division club, that can make it hard to attract players.”

Managing Expectations

A lot of the elements at play at a club like Finn Harps comes down to managing expectations.

Who are the players that can be brought in? Where are the points that can be picked up? And, from time to time, where can they take the big scalps?

A run like the one they endured at the beginning of the season can’t be particularly palatable for supporters, so the battle within the group is to remain upbeat about their games, their defeats and to try overhaul the club’s poor form.

In any walk of life when things aren’t going well for you it can be hard to stay positive. We’re in a position where every week it’s kind of a clean slate. It’s not like we’re going for a league where a loss is a huge disadvantage. We go week-to-week. Three points are huge, a point is great.

“That’s the way we look at it. There are situations throughout the year – bad refereeing decisions – that can drain a player. But I think if you’re a player and you actually want to play, that positivity can be instilled into you. Either you’re a player or you’re not.

“I played against Sligo on last Friday and we got a good result. Then we went on Monday night and I was left out of the team to try and freshen things up ahead of the game Friday.

“Obviously I’m devastated when I see that I’m not going to be playing. But I suppose you’d be disappointed for a minute but then you realise – the team still has to go here. You put your feelings to the side and go into the boys to see if they’re ready. You always have a part to play, whether you’re in the team or not.

If someone is going to sit there and stink the place out because they’re not involved in the squad, they’re going to have a very short career.

“I’ve been around now for about 10 years, in the First Division and the Premier Division. You have to try use all that experience. The guys that you play under, you try and use their advice and experience to keep yourself as energised as you can. With defeats and with things not going well, things can go flat. You get in every Monday or for every training session and try be as positive as possible.”

He continued: “If I’ve played well maybe the week before and it’s coming to the next game and we know there’s another game quite soon, it could be something as simple as you just want to get rested. I’m almost 34 and as much rest as possible is going to benefit me. If I’ve played bad the week before, there’s no excuse needed.

I find sometimes too much emphasis is put on players needing a word in the ear. It’s a man’s game. You can’t put an arm around everybody and make sure that we’re alright or checking in week on week to make sure we’re OK. Sometimes guys need a bit of tough love to get on with it and see how players react without getting that phone call or a text message to say they’ve been left out.

“You can learn a lot about a player to see how they react after that. It wouldn’t need to be a case where you’re getting phonecalls all the time. You know yourself what’s around and the players in the squad – can they be doing a better job if it is the case that they are left out? Players are given a jersey and are told this is yours, make sure you keep it because I’ll be looking for it back.”

Off the back of the mid-season break, Harps’ fortunes have begun to pick up.

Nathan Boyle with Ciaran Kelly Nathan Boyle (right) has scored some crucial goals for Harps in recent weeks. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Victory over Sligo last Friday (2-0) was followed by a scoreless draw with last season’s Premier Division runners-up Cork City.

And while acknowledging Cork’s poor form so far this season, Cowan offered some insight into the more recent upturn of form.

“The break gave us some time to reflect. You have that time away from the squad and you’re not taking part in training. When it’s good it’s great but when things are going badly, weeks bleed into the next. If things aren’t going well, that can carry on.

“With the Sligo game, that was probably a good game for us to have. I’m not saying we banked on getting three points but the fact that we played three times already this year.

“The first game we lost to two set pieces (2-1) and beat them then in the [EA Sports] Cup. I thought we controlled that game. Then down there they got a point with a last-minute penalty. We had confidence that we could match them and we if kept things tight there’s no reason we couldn’t get three points.

The derby feel also added a bit of spice to it. As well as that, we have to remember that we’re fighting for our lives here. Maybe they’re a little bit more in their comfort zone. They’re one of those sides who were going to finish mid-table and that they see us as just above relegation – so they might take us a little bit more lightly.

“It worked out great for us. It was probably the perfect game in that everyone played well. Our keeper made a great save at the start of the match that was destined for the top corner. If that goes in early on then we’re straight on the negative. Heads go down. That gave us a lift that the keeper is on form.

“We defended really well. We created chances – hit the crossbar. There was a shot that was maybe carried over the line. I think the linesman might have slipped as he went to change direction or put his flag up. I don’t know what he was going to do. The goal wasn’t given but we eventually got our rewards because we were getting in behind them and Nathan Boyle got the goals.

It was one of those games where everything seemed to go well for us. There’s been times this season where we’ve been on top and haven’t been able to get that goal. Then you go down the other end and concede. It can be deflating.

“Then going into the Cork game with that confidence. We were probably unlucky not to go down and get something out of the game that finished 4-3 earlier in the year.

“Gearoid Morrisey scored two goal of the season contenders. We went ahead twice. There’s not much in those two teams in terms of the results that we had. We’re going to have confidence going into those games. We know as a group where we are. There will be certain games where you have to sit in and try soak it up and hit teams on the counter. There are certain games you go in to with the belief that we can go and get something.”

Finn Harps now face into a crucial bottom of the table clash with UCD on Friday night, knowing a win would send them seven points clear of their Dublin rivals.

Despite the club’s poor opening third of the season, Cowan did commend the Students on their positive approach to their games.

“The way they played was brilliant, especially with such a young group of players. I suppose for Collie as well, he stuck to the style. He made the players play his style instead of adapting to what they had.

“It’s no great mystery why the players are departing – they’re excellent. Premier League teams want to get them in as soon as possible.

Why start another course for a year when the other big clubs come calling. You sort of have to go. With both of us coming up together, it’s a game from last year just in the Premier Division. A point or three points are going to be huge for whoever can get it.

“I suppose the way we look at it is we’re above them at the moment so if we can stay there it leaves us in a better position. It’s never going to be an easy game, you don’t get them against this quality of teams. They’re very well organised and have a good young crop of players. There could be ones in there that might go later on. We’ll have to prepare as best we can.

“Playing on Monday night and being beaten comprehensively by Sligo, the team will be looking for a response. Collie will need a reaction from his team.”

As for his own career, Cowan is continuing to listen to his body. Turning 34 next month and having come off the back of three ACL injuries, as well as a broken kneecap during his career, the Donegal native is just happy to still be on the pitch.

He won’t be rushed to a decision on his future.

“As the season has gone on, I’ve started to feel stronger and fitter with the run of games. Until you feel you’re not able to offer anything, you always put your hand up and see what you can give to Harps or whoever is interested.

[The injuries] sort of tot up after a while. As I said before, you just have to wait and see what the body says come the end of the year or this year.

“If I’m fit and well there’s no reason why not. We’ll see how it goes.”

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