Con McLaughlin – First Donegal Man to score 100 goals in the League of Ireland
Con McLaughlin signed for Finn Harps as the natural progression of a player who had achieved nearly everything at underage level that one can do in Donegal. Con who hails from Ramelton, had broken into his hometown club, Swilly Rovers, first team at the tender age of fifteen. He had progressed into one of the top goalscorers in the Donegal League and had a host of other honours under his belt from the Youth scene. Con won three international youth caps against Northern Ireland, Finland and Holland, scoring once against the Finns. He also picked up two goals at junior level when Ireland defeated Scotland by two goals to one. While with Harps he also won caps at amateur level against Norway.
Con had been on the Donegal Youth League winning side in 1978, that defeated Galway by four goals to nil in Butlins. The young striker had notched two goals in the final, and played alongside players of the calibre of Packie Bonner, Mick Ferry, Denis Bonner, John McElwaine, and Declan McIntyre. Ironically Con tells the story “that is how Packie Bonner got picked up by Celtic. Declan (McIntyre) was our regular keeper but got injured just before the finals. Packie came in and was spotted by Celtic and that is how he ended up at Parkhead.”
Con’s own dreams of making it across channel were ruined by a combination of the FAI and the English Football Association. Con wrote to the FAI for permission to go to Wolves over the Easter period, this was refused because the FAI wanted him to play in a friendly international against Northern Ireland. When Con failed to make it back in time for the friendly international he was suspended for two further games.
Putting that disappointment aside Con decided to remain in Donegal and came on board at Finn Park. He made an immediate impact scoring on his debut against Cork Alberts at eighteen years of age and he pretty much remained in the team barring injuries or suspensions until he decided to leave Finn Park and return to his roots in Donegal Football.
When asked about the best moments he had in a Harps jersey Con doesn’t hesitate “getting to the League Cup Final in the 1984/85 season even though we were beaten by Waterford. Also scoring a hat trick against Dundalk in Oriel Park the same season, although at that time we had already been relegated.”
The logical extension was to ask about his disappointments “Ah, there were many. Relegation hit me very hard, we went from a team who could beat anybody on their day to being a team that were beaten by most others was a blow. I suppose the writing was on the wall from early on that season as the club had no money, but it was still a shock when it became a reality.” On a personal level “it was during the Cup semi-final at Milltown in 1981. Dermot Keely, who was then playing for Dundalk had been provoking me the whole day, I was young and relatively inexperienced and looked to see if the referee was watching. He wasn’t and I aimed a kick at Keely and of course I got caught and ended up getting my marching orders.”
Con also relates the story of the Shield Final in 1986 when Harps didn’t perform against EMFA (now Kilkenny City) “the games had finished two weeks earlier and it didn’t look as if we were going to get paid for the Final. At the time I was the players spokesman and went into the Committee to see what the story was. Anyhow it was all resolved but as I came off the pitch in Oriel Park, I met the then treasurer Declan Sherlock and he said to me as he was passing “You should have called off the strike Con!”.
Con pays tribute to his late father Denis McLaughlin, Ritchie Kelly and Eunan Blake as the people who had most influence on his career in the early stages and when he was starting out in Senior football. Also there could be another McLaughlin to grace the stage at Finn Park as Con’s son Darren who is 15 is currently playing for Milford in the Donegal Youth League. “He has some football in him, he has the brain for playing and is beginning to fill out and stretch upwards, maybe he will make it in the game but young fellas have so many other distractions nowadays.”
This leads Con onto his one and only managerial post. “After I left Harps I had two years with Milford United and another twelve months with Letterkenny Rovers in the Ulster Senior League. I was then asked by Swilly Rovers to take over as player manager which I agreed to.” However, the managers life didn’t agree with him. “I would spend hours on the phone on a Saturday making sure I had a team for the following day and would have the sixteen players agreed and know what plan they would play to, but on the Sunday I would be down to the bare eleven as the others decided they had better things to do, so I decided that it wasn’t for me.” Con returned to playing and turned out for Rathmullen Celtic in the Donegal League before becoming a referee.
“It was a decision that came to me after some thought. I wanted to remain involved in the game but knew I didn’t want to be a manager so I said I would give refereeing a go and at the moment it is very much in it’s infancy. I have taken charge of some of the Donegal Women’s League and Donegal Youth League games and am looking forward to doing some Donegal League games now it has restarted.” He continues on “it has given me a whole different perspective you have to watch and look at everything, I actually feel sorry for referees now that I know what the job entails. The hardest thing is doing the games on your own with no assistant referees, it is nearly impossible to judge offside and every game should have a referee and two assistant refs.”
When asked why he never left Harps as he was one of the top forwards in the country at the time Con says it wasn’t through lack of offers. “At different times Derry City, Drogheda, Galway and Sligo all came in for me, but I enjoyed my time with Harps and if there is one regret I have now I wonder what it would have been like to play for someone else. The only thing is that my love of Finn Harps Football Club always won through, and I decided to remain on at the club.”
Con was happy to be awarded a testimonial in 1988, when he was at Harps ten years, “it really felt good that my loyalty was rewarded by the club. It was nice to see the club give me something back for the ten years I had put in and as it came at the end of my best ever season, I scored nineteen goals and broke Kristic’s record from the season before, it really was special.”
In fact Con still frequents Finn Park as much as he can even though Friday nights don’t really suit him. “Up to this season I would rarely miss a home game and get to a few away ones as well, but Friday’s have changed that and I get over now whenever I can.” When asked for his views on the current team Con is equally forthright “they need another forward to play alongside Kevin (McHugh)”, and he adds a little wistfully that “he would love to have had the chance to be Kevin’s partner, also I feel they need a midfielder in the Joe Logan mould who would pull the strings in the middle of the pitch and get up for the odd goal. Tom Mohan does the grafting in the middle of the park but when he is out of the side they have no one to replace him.”
Con finishes up with a personal footnote “I really enjoyed my time at Finn Park and I would like this opportunity wish the present Board of Directors, Management and players the best of luck and best wishes in the future.” Con McLaughlin, one of the finest footballers to ever come out of Donegal.
Since the date of this interview in September 2003 Con has also turned out on all four occasions for the Finn Harps legends side, including wins over Manchester United, Derry City and Finn Harps Fans side and a draw against the Liverpool Legends.
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