With the 2011 Airtricity First Division season about to kick-off tonight, Finn Harps manager, James Gallagher, has a clear vision of where he wants to be come the end of the campaign.
TOM COMACK reports
The Harps boss, who is beginning his second full season in the top job, is targeting at least a top five finish.
Having taken over from Paul Hegarty during the 2009 season feels, Gallagher believes the time has come for his young team to deliver and improve on their midtable finish at the end of 2010.
“Looking at the league, Cork City, Shelbourne, Waterford, and Limerick are as I see it, the top teams and if we can tuck in behind them and finish fifth it will be a good season and that will signal progress,” declared Gallagher.
“We have to be realistic in our expectations and I think a fifth place finish is being realistic,” he added.
“It is all a matter of getting off to a good start and staying injury free. We have a squad of 18 players, 15 outfield players and three goalkeepers and with such a small panel if you pick up a few injuries it can stretch you but, hopefully, that will not be the case this year.”
During the close season Gallagher made a number of high profile signings bringing centre-half, Paddy McLaughlin, back to the club and adding former Sligo Rovers midfielder, Conor O’Grady and Coleraine’s Gareth Harkin to his squad.
And it is the injection of experience and quality that McLaughlin, O’Grady and Harkin bring to Finn Park, along with the experience gained by his young guns in recent seasons, that gives the manager a degree of optimism for the season ahead.
“The general feeling is we have a better squad of players than last season and that is how I see it too. With Paddy (McLaughlin) and Packie Mailey in the centre of defence, Conor O’Grady in midfield and Kevin McHugh up front, I believe we are strong down the middle.
“The younger lads have come on well and they are much stronger this year and I think that was very noticeable in our pre-season games. It is as if they had grown from boys to men during the close season. They also have a couple of seasons’ experience behind them and they are much better players. That should also stand to them this year.
“There is no point in going out and bringing in new players and working and bringing on young players if you don’t make progress and that is why I feel we have to step it up this season. I don’t want to put pressure on anyone, but the time has come to deliver and I am confident if we can avoid any serious injuries and get the breaks, our objective of a top five place finish is a realistic one.”
Coll’s Welcome Return
In addition to the above-mentioned new signings, left-back Ciaran Coll, who missed practically all last season due to a cruciate injury, is now fully fit again and has got a good pre-season behind him. Christy Connaghan, who has also rejoined the club, is well on the road to recovery from his cruciate operation.
“Ciaran is back, which is a big plus and he is in great shape and fully fit again while Christy is flying in training and is only a matter of weeks away from a return,” Gallagher confirmed.
“The problem with Christy now is holding him back. He is going really well in training and is anxious to get going. But we don’t want to rush him in case he comes back too early and then suffers a setback.
“I think it’s a matter of being patient. But the good news on Christy is that all is going well and he is only a matter of weeks away from a full return which will be another big plus for us.”
A hectic and busy pre-season included friendly games against Sligo Rovers, Derry City, Northern Ireland Juniors, Letterkenny Rovers and Swinford, with Harps only losing once against Northern Ireland Juniors.
“We had a very good pre-season,” Gallagher continued. “It is only a matter of now going out and hitting the ground running and getting early points on the board. Hopefully, we can keep in touch with the big guns.”
Limerick in Finn Park
Pat Scully will lead Limerick to Ballybofey for the opening game and Gallagher may well continue with his new formation. (Kick-off: 8.00 p.m.)
Having operated a successful 4-3-3 system during recent pre-season games, it’s possible that Gallagher will continue to experiement given his new signings.
That said, the Harps’ boss expects Limerick to be challenging for promotion come the end of the season.
“We tried the new formation in pre-season and we believe it worked out well, so we may continue with that formation for a few games to see how it goes,” said Gallagher.
“I believe Limerick will be a top side this year as they have some very good players in their squad and have shown great form in their pre-season fixtures.
“It’s going to be a tough test for us and we’ll have to be at ourselves to get something from the game.
“That’s the challenge we face and it will be up to us to meet that challenge head on,” concluded Gallagher.
Harps are expected to have James Doherty and Ciaran Coll in the full-back berths with Paddy McLaughlin and Packie Mailey in the central positions.
A three-man midfield is expected to be made up of Tommy Bonner and Mark Forker flanking Conor O’Grady with Kevin McHugh supported in the front line by Fergal Harkin and Oising McMenamin.