Derry men helpHarps to glory
Forget about the great Arsenal Invincibles side from the 2002/03 season, there's a new unbeaten side who have gone a step further and four men from Derry have played their part in the success.
Toronto Harps have just completed the 2017 season and secured the treble with Aaron King, Mark O’Kane, Daniel Gavin and Damien McGee all producing the goods during the campaign.
Three of the four Derry men emigrated to Canada in 2013 and they helped to establish Harps, while Damien made the move in March of this year.
The entire squad are a side made up completely of Irish players from all around the country and formed as a way of bringing people together while being away from home.
Since the club’s formation three years ago, Harps have won both League (Media A League) and League Cup (Media A League Cup) for three years straight.
They have only lost four times in three years, scoring over an impressive 175 goals while only conceding 30.
But this season they finally clinched the big one - the TSSL Cup (Toronto Services Soccer League), where close to 100 teams compete, as all the leagues in the city take part.
In their first season Harps reached the TSSL Cup final only to lose 1-0 and last season they were knocked out at the semi-final stage, but this year they went one step further when they saw off a competitive Maccabi Hawkes, who have won the prestigious competition the past two seasons in a row, after a penalty shoot-out.
The final ended 2-2 with Ardmore man O’Kane grabbing Toronto’s goals, before they held their nerve in the shoot-out, winning 4-3 on penalties.
Managed by Kildare man Steven McDonald, not only have Toronto Harps won the title and League Cup for the past three seasons, they have won the biggest Cup in Toronto while going the entire season unbeaten.
McGee is no stranger to success having helped Ardmore and Top of the Hill Celtic clinch quite a few domestic trophies in recent years, while O’Kane, a fellow Ardmore man, was the club’s top scorer this season scoring an impressive 19 goals in all competitions.
And King, from Currynierin, was delighted with how the season has gone.
“The biggest highlight this season has to be winning the TSSL cup final on penalties and ending the season unbeaten,” he stated.
“To go an entire season unbeaten and to win a treble, was great. Last season we reached the TSSL semi-final against a team called TSC United. Unfortunately, we were knocked out and it was the last game of that season which left us annoyed.
“Fast forward a year and we were drawn against the same team for the semi-final again, so we were looking for redemption. Unfortunately, we were losing 1-0 at half-time, but our centre-midfielder Mark Gary levelled things with a superb scissor-kick which just added fuel to our game and we kept at them until the game went to extra-time (golden goal) where our striker Martin Hoey latched onto a ball across the box from a counter attack.
“Once the ball hit the back of that net the team exploded with joy and I think that was the moment where we thought we can’t be beaten by anyone.”
O’Kane works as a Lab Technician for the LCBO (Liquor Control Board Ontario), Gavin is a Financial Analyst for CIBC (Canadian Bank) and McGee is a workshop joiner, but King, who works for an architects firm specialising in high-end custom residential and interiors, admits Harps has helped him and all the guys settle into life in Canada.
“Almost all of us left home knowing very few people, having nowhere to live and no jobs lined up. We literally started from the bottom,” he confirmed.
“Moving from Derry to a large metropolis like Toronto took some time adjusting to, but the Canadians are very friendly, courteous and welcoming people, but you miss the craic with your own friends.
“The team was set-up as a way of socialising and getting everyone together to help each other out. A few of the lads were sitting in the bar talking about football and the conversation led to them setting up a team.
“They saw the Harp logo from one of the bar signs and decided that was it, Toronto Harps! We’ve helped each other find jobs, apartments and a lot of us even spend Christmas together.
“We feel like it’s more than a football team, it’s more like a family and a home that’s 3,000 kilometres away.
“Don’t get me wrong though, all of us still miss our own home comforts. We miss the little things like a battered sausage supper from Bridies, soda bread and Tayto cheese and onion crisps.
“Another thing us Derry lads can relate to is having to slow down our accent when talking to Canadians and even going as far as calling the toilets ‘washrooms’, diesel ‘gas’ and ending a sentence in ‘eh’,” he joked.
King feels Harps’ success really is down to a team and squad effort this season.
“There has been a lot of players who have been superb this year, it’s hard to choose just one,” he confirmed.
“Mark O’Kane banged in 19 goals in 20 games (top scorer) and scored a 40-yard lob over the keeper in the TSSL final. There’s also Dee McGee, who signed for us this season when he moved over. He dictated play and was instrumental in the team’s creativity.
“Add to that our left back/centre-half Joey Reilly from Dublin, who had early spells at Dundalk, was unbelievable this season at the back and one of the reasons why we managed to concede only nine goals in the league. There are a few more names I could easily vote for the star man but those three men have been amazing.”
King knows it’s going to be tough to try and top this year, but he concedes him and his team-mates will be looking for similar glory next season, especially if a number of players move on or even head back home.
“Yes we can certainly try to repeat this season’s achievements. The only thorn in our sides are visas. It’s something everyone in the team has hardship with,” he said.
“Almost all of us lads move over on a 2-year working-holiday visa initially, so some come to an end, some are extended and some end up applying for permanent residency.
“We have lost a couple of talented players because of it but we can sign new players. The teams are great for helping each other out with visas because it’s something we all have to deal with. Next season will get underway in May and it will end in October coinciding with the warmer months, which is going to be tough.
“I would say to anyone if they are planning to take the leap and move to Canada and Toronto, we couldn’t recommend it enough and encourage anyone to get in contact with the team for advice, help and to make friends.”
While Harps won’t be able to go any further in terms of progressing, King does admit the club as a whole may expand with a ladies team possibley being set-up in the not too distant future.
“Earlier this year we contacted a team in Ottawa for a pre-season game where we went up and won 5-2. We are hoping to organise another pre-season game either in Montreal or in the States for next season.
“We are a fairly new team here so we are trying to build contacts and make connections. Word of us is spreading quickly throughout the city with a lot of people looking to play for us.
“There is talk of having to set up a B team and even a ladies team. We even have our own merchandise in hats and jackets.
“It’s surreal to think that four years ago when we landed in the country, we never thought that we would have a hand in establishing a football team achieving what we have. It’s exciting thinking of what could happen in the next four years.”