Finn Harps under Ollie Horgan have consistently punched above their weight. Winning promotion was a great achievement, but now that the celebrations have subsided there is a massive amount of work to be done both on and off the pitch as the Donegal club will once again attempt to survive at the higher level of the domestic game. Finance is crucial.
Harps manager Ollie Horgan is set to meet board members this evening, and he will point out that the club simply must find ways of increasing its income.
Indeed, even a doubling of the budget will still leave them as the minnows in the ten team Premier Division.
Horgan, after the great win in Limerick in the play-off, is a realist. Harps' budget is only a fraction of the other clubs.
Big decisions are required. If Harps are to harbour ambitions of remaining as a Premier Division club they will have to increase their revenue considerably. In many respects the club is at a major crossroads.
Chris Ashmore reports.
Massive gap between the haves and have-nots must be addressed
Yes, you want to compete at the highest level possible, but what do you do when the playing field is far from level – and how do you just survive?
Finn Harps’ wonderful second half of the season saw them go a 14 match unbeaten run (excluding an FAI Cup defeat against double winners Dundalk) and the ultimate objective for the season – promotion – has been achieved.
Ollie Horgan, his assistant Paul Hegarty, and the players deserve enormous credit for finishing as runners-up and then going up via the play-offs.
The management can take much credit for the manner in which they attracted new players to the club during the summer transfer window – and the new arrivals all played a big part in getting promoted.
But now two massive challenges are quickly on the horizon.
The first is to sign up as many players as possible (the entire team, as is common at many clubs) are out of contract.
And the second issue is finance.
Here the challenges just cannot be understated.
Like it or not, Harps will effectively be the small fry in the 2019 Premier pond.
They will be odds-on favourites for the drop.
Almost certainly, they will have the smallest budget.
This year the double winners Dundalk will probably end up spending about seven times what Harps did on its first team squad and management.
Cork City and Shamrock Rovers had first team budgets of around four times or more than that of Harps.
And every other club in the Premier next season will go into action with a considerably bigger budget that Harps have – unless some serious additional funding can be found.
The reality is that Harps’ budget probably needs to more than double next year.
Even a million euro budget will leave Harps up against it.
According to one well-placed Finn Harps source, when Harps were last in the Premier, in 2016, they were relegated along with Drogheda United and Galway United, and the combined budget of the three clubs was less that the budget of the side that finished above them to stay up!
Earlier this year, details of a new UEFA report on wages levels in its 55 member leagues was released.
The figures were based on 2016, and were somewhat distorted – in Ireland’s case – due to Dundalk’s successful run in Europe. The total revenue for the League of Ireland Premier Division amounted to €19m. Significantly, some 43% of this was “European” money while 32% was sponsorship and commercial deals with gate receipts amounting in 21% and other source of income at just 4%.
Average expenditure on salaries (players and management) per club worked out at €700,000.
One of the big issues facing many clubs is that players are not on year-round salaries.
The season runs from February to the end of October, or early November for some clubs.
Very few players are on contracts that see them getting paid during the close season.
Back in December 2017, Cork City announced that they would offer 52-week contracts.
Manager John Caulfield claimed at the time that it was the biggest off-field development in his time at the club.
But they could afford to do it, having been crowned as league champions in 2017, and they remain clearly the best supported club in the league.
Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers also have many of their players on 12 month contracts. Outside of these clubs, it is a rare exception.
One consequence of this is that when players are released at the end of the season, the bigger, richer clubs tend to cherry pick who they are interested in.
And it’s hard for a player with a club like Finn Harps to turn down a deal with one of the bigger clubs where the wages could easily be two or three times what they were before.
For clubs like Harps, paying a player during the close season would be a big drain on finances.
Indeed, while there are a small number of players whose sole income is from the beautiful game, the reality is that for the majority another job or source of income is required.
In 2016, a study organised by the world players’ union, Fifpro, in conjunction with the University of Manchester found that around 60 per cent of players in the Airtricity League had second jobs because earnings with their clubs were so low and contracts so short. A total of 176 League of Ireland players provided input to the survey.
At the time the Irish Times reported that “just the top one per cent of players surveyed by the PFAI had a monthly take home pay in the €3,775 to €7,550 range with more than half earning between €565 and €1,880 per month.”
It added that “just over a fifth of players in the league earn less than €280 per month.”
It is unlikely that the figures have changed much.
When two sides line out in the SSE Airtricity League, it’s worth noting that one team could be full of proper full-time players while the other could have part-time players who seem to be trying to carry out a full-time role.
For those with other jobs outside the game, getting time off may be an issue, and they may even be out of pocket if they have to make arrangements that mean missing work in order to play for their club.
The reality for many players is that playing for an Airtricity League club feels like a full-time job, but it has part-time pay.
In the Celtic Tiger days, clubs in the league splashed out. Fifty-two week contracts and even two-year contracts were commonplace. Wages soared. A sizeable number of players were earning €800 - €1,000 a week with €1,500 a week or more attainable for a select few.
Indeed, Finn Harps’ total expenditure back in 2008 – when they were in the Premier Division - was over €900,000 (more than double what it was for this year).
At the time, the club was going down the full-time road for players.
By comparison turnover in 2007 was €648,444 compared to €306,587 in 2006. The healthy financial figures were mainly attributable to increased gate receipts, which had increased from €57,698 in 2006 to €282,771 in 2007, and a booming economy which helped commercial revenues.
Harps were promoted in 2007 following a 6-3 aggregate play-off success over Waterford. But at the end of the 2008 season they were relegated again.
The economic crash took its toll and several clubs were plunged into financial bother, and the hangover is still there for some clubs, notably the likes of Bohemians and Shelbourne.
There are also geographical factors, as Harps know only too well, that can impact on a team. An away trip for a Friday fixture may necessitate getting a day off work. A midweek fixture can eat into two workdays.
And then there are also natural added disadvantages for the part-timers. Work related commitments can be draining. Fitness levels and recovery times can be influenced considerably by non-club related matters.
And so the gap between the haves and have-nots is an issue, and possibly a growing one.
As one Finn Harps figure put it: “It’s hard to see beyond Dundalk or Cork for the next five years.”
He noted that Shamrock Rovers have the resources to try and disrupt the duopoly and Waterford will be boosted by European money.
But we are increasingly facing a scenario where there are the big two, fuelled by European money.
Dundalk and Cork City are the Real Madrid and Barcelona of the Airtricity League.
And if Dundalk can finally break into the group stages of the Champions League, they will be catapulted into a galaxy far from where Finn Harps are.
And yet – and here is the hope – while money increases the chances of success there are no guarantees. Great clubs can fall. And it’s not that long ago that both Dundalk and Cork City were both in dire financial straits.
If Harps can survive in the top flight and consolidate their position, they are potentially one of the best supported League of Ireland clubs. There is much to look forward to, not least the new stadium. The clubs underage structures have never been better. One must try and be upbeat, despite the huge financial challenges.
It will be tough – and a major backer would make a massive difference. The bottom line is that Harps are back in the top tier.
But how can they compete.
And if Horgan feels the budget is not big enough what happens then? If he leaves, the club will be in dire trouble. His contribution over the past few seasons has been immense. His well documented over-achievements have not gone unnoticed.
The next few weeks will be massively important for Finn Harps. What happens in the "close season" will have a huge bearing on 2019 and beyond.
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