Aidan O'Hara: Harps example shows commitment to cause not just a GAA phenomenon
This morning, Ciaran Gallagher will leave for work at about half seven. He'll arrive after an hour's commute and be there until around 12.30 or 1.00. A little while later, he'll meet the Finn Harps team bus where he might catch up with some sleep on the two-and-a-half hour, 180km journey from Ballybofey to Drogheda.
Unlike the last time when the team made this journey a month ago, everything should hopefully be working at United Park so that the re-arranged game can kick-off at 7.45.
Afterwards, with the rest of his team-mates, he will get back on the bus and, even when it returns to Ballybofey - because this is Donegal - Gallagher will still have an hour's drive north to reach his home which he expects to see again about 2.0am.
A few hours later, he'll get up and go to work for what he recognises could be "a long day to make up the time".
Then, on Friday morning, he gets to do it all over again except, this time, it'll be a slightly longer journey of just over 200km to Athlone.
With the clocks having already sprung forward the previous week, it'll be close to daylight when he's home for the second time in a week.
At least he's off on Saturday.
Gallagher, it must be emphasised, isn't complaining about any of this but his example, and that of the club, underlines a group that must have one of the lowest "time consumed" to "reward received" ratios of athletes in the country. The League of Ireland First Division footballer.
If you were designing a tourist trail around Ireland, there are worse places that it could start than Ballybofey.
From there, spin three hours (230km) to Galway and then another three (216km) down to Cobh.
Then, make the mere two-and-a-half hour (175km) journey to Wexford and on up the M11 for 90 minutes (120km) to Cabinteely.
Enjoy a quick spin through Dublin to UCD and then Tolka Park before getting on the road again from Drumcondra to Drogheda (45km) hoping to miss the commuter traffic then almost two hours to Athlone (144km) and, finally, a merciful 45-minute spin up to Longford.
As a way of seeing the country, it would be quite the trip but for each of those clubs that make up the 10-team First Division league with small crowds and even smaller budgets, the effort required to keep the show on the road is phenomenal.
When it comes to volunteerism and how much time players have to give up in order to play at the highest level they can, the conversation tends to be dominated by the GAA, whose commitment levels on both fronts are beyond dispute.
Yet if their players were asked to make a minimum of 13 round trips - excluding cup games - of around 300 kilometres usually on Friday nights across a seven month period that runs through the summer, the hackles would certainly be raised.
Although, at least in the case of the club player in the League of Ireland, they have an idea of when their games will actually be played.
For Finn Harps, the shortest round trip they will make for a league match is the 320km journey to Longford and back while, in Cobh's case, it's the 350km return to Wexford which they made for a midweek League Cup game two weeks ago that was neatly summed by Gallagher's goalkeeping counterpart at Cobh, Paul Hunt.
"5-1 in work followed by bus to Wexford, 120 Minutes and a penalty shootout, home for about 1 to be back up for work at 4. Ladies and gentlemen welcome to playing LOI football," he tweeted.
Last week, Athlone had to play an outfield player in goal for the game against Cabinteely because the goalkeepers in their squad were either injured or working while Finn Harps also had a work issue with a player unable to travel to play in Cobh last Saturday week.
"We thought that the company could support us in any way they could," said Harps manager Ollie Horgan.
"Blocking the lad from travelling to Cobh was very disappointing. I know that we aren't the only club struggling like that, but that's the nature of it.
"This is a part-time League with part-time teams. You just need everyone backing you."
Regular requests for time off is the reality for most players in the divisions but, as Gallagher puts it, "nobody is forcing anyone to do it".
"As long as you're enjoying your football, you want to do it. And all we have to do is train and play. That's probably the easy part."
The hard part Is keeping the show on the road away from the pitch, which means, as Harps commercial manager Aidan Campbell puts it, "every time somebody sees your name on their phone, they know you want something".
"Volunteerism is the key to everything," adds Campbell, whose remit is partly to deal with making up the shortfall between what comes into the club through gate receipts and sponsorship and what goes out in terms of expense.
And without people freely giving up their time, that all falls apart.
To be in a National League at a rural club means challenges every week from repairs at the ground; booking pitches for underage teams; organising nurseries in the hope of getting local kids to identify with the club; arranging people for their most suitable jobs at the gate; stewarding; safety; trying to keep facilities right so that people come back; trying to get more people to come in the first place; attracting sponsors; updating websites and social media channels and organising fund-raising so that - in the period like the four weeks in the summer when Harps aren't scheduled for a home game - there's still money coming into the club. And that's before a ball is kicked.
"The commitment from volunteers is fantastic," adds Campbell. "But we have to try make sure there's no volunteer burnout because often it's the same faces giving up so much time for the cause."
On effort levels alone from players to managers to the staff behind the scenes and the volunteers giving up their time to keep it all going, it's a future that deserves to be bright.
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