FINN HARPS fans haven’t had much to shout about when it comes to league games against rivals Derry City ever since the ‘Candy Stripes’ entered the League of Ireland back in 1985.
T he Co. Donegal club have gone head-to-head with their North West neighbours on 30 occasions in the league down through the years but the statistics don’t read kindly for supporters of the Ballybofey club.
Derry have won 22 of those 30 encounters and drawn seven - but one clash 18 years ago lives long in the memory for current Derry City coach and former Derry City and Harps midfielder, Donal O’Brien.
On February 1st, 1998, O’Brien met a cross from the right, towered above the Derry defence at the Town End and powered his header across goal and into the net past Derry keeper, Tony O’Dowd.
It proved an historic goal for Harps as they won 1-0 to secure the bragging rights in the local derby for the first time in the league.
It took place during O’Brien’s second spell for Harps after representing Derry City for four years - the club where he made his senior debut in the League of Ireland.
The previous year he helped guide Harps to the FAI Cup Final and they took that momentum into the 1998/99 league campaign.
And, while the passing of time has blurred the memories of that glorious day for Harps, O’Brien remembers what it meant for the club back then.
And he’s hoping it doesn’t become a bad omen for City as the clubs prepare to renew their rivalry in the Premier Division for the first time in eight years!
“It was the only time Harps beat Derry in the league. I remember that,” recalled O’Brien this week.
I finished my career with Harps but my kids will be coming to watch the match and will be supporting Derry. Back in the day, my wife was supporting Harps but that’s the way football is.Donal O’Brien
“I just remember that, at the time, Harps were a very strong side. We had a few ex-Derry City players in the squad and were able to assemble a good young squad. Whatever form at the time just went out the door which is probably the same that will happen on Friday evening.
“You’re going back a long time, maybe 18 years, and, as I get older, there’s certain things I can’t remember as well,” he continued.
“I remember the season before was the Cup Final and we had a great year and then we went on a run the following year.
“We were holding our own and were beating teams like Shamrock Rovers, Pat’s and were doing in the Premiership, too. So it was a good time to be around Finn Park.
“The goal that night I don’t really remember that much about it. But all statistics go out the window this Friday night and we have to prepare ourselves for this game.”
O’Brien, who is also a community youth worker in Derry, was delighted to get the opportunity to return to Brandywell Stadium this year and he believes the club is a ‘sleeping giant’ with the right man in charge in Kenny Shiels to turn around their fortunes.
“I finished my career with Harps but my kids will be coming to watch the match and will be supporting Derry. Back in the day, my wife was supporting Harps but that’s the way football is. I’ve always supported Derry because it was my first club in the League of Ireland where I got my debut in senior football and I’ll always be grateful for that.
“As you go on as a player you support the club you play with. To be given the opportunity to go back and be a part of Derry City again has been massive for me. It’s a sleeping giant and it’s about players who have come in realising how big the club is.
“What a stepping stone for young players and what a club to be able to play your football at to progress your career.
“I’m here to assist Kenny in his day-to-day running of the club. I learn so much from Kenny’s experience. He’s one of these men who goes beyond what’s expected of a manager. He’s a people’s person and is very much about the community.
“That’s what I tried to instil when I was at Cockhill Celtic. It’s about players reaching out to their community and helping.
“He’s willing to get his hands dirty. So every day I’m in with him it’s a new experience where I’m learning.
“I bring my own experience and knowledge of football to it and that’s how we assist each other.”
Finn Harps go into tonight’s game with a bit of momentum in terms of both playing personnel and backroom staff, although the addition of former Derry City manager, Gavin Dykes, also adds an extra dimension to the game.
And, while Derry has experienced a lot of change in the off-season, O’Brien believes it can work in their favour.
“It’s the first game of the season. People are eager to get off to a good start.
“It’s about matching the other team and there will be a lot of nerves. We have to stick to our gameplan and build on the strengths we have and take it from there.
“We brought in a few players this year and we’re a very young side.
“It’s about gelling everyone together. We have to hold what we have and add to that. The new manager coming in needs time to settle in and time to see how people are working. Kenny’s bringing his own ideas and keeping the nucleus of last year’s squad.
“We have a young side and they are very energetic. Harps had a season or two under their belts playing together. They had a play-off and they know what it’s like to win. They know each others’ strengths and have their set-pieces down to a tea. They’re well conditioned and know what way Ollie wants to play.
“So, when you come up against a team like that, it’s always going to be difficult no matter how good we are. It’s about breaking them down.
“We need to be committed, disciplined and focussed on what we need to do. It’s not so much about what they bring but about what we bring. The fixture being at Finn Park probably puts a bit of edge on this game for us. It’s the first game of the season, a local derby, but at the end of the day it’s only one of 33 games of the season.
“You also have players at Harps who were at Derry before and maybe they want to show they should still be at Derry. There’ll be personal battles going on and it’s club versus club so the local rivalry will be strong.”