Retrosport: Rovers' fairy-tale Cup crusade ended in bitter heartbreak

Published 06/03/2003 | 00:11

The Sligo Rovers squad and members of the club's management committee pictured at a civic reception accorded to them by the Mayor of Sligo, Cllr. Sean McManus, after the 1970 FAI Cup final. Included are (l-r): Frazer Browne, Tommy Fallon, Michael O'Boyle, Michael Sweeney, James Tiernan, Dermot Murphy, Tony Burns, Jimmy Gilmartin, Tony Fagan, Fintan Brett, Kevin Fallon, Dick McKiernan, Jim Dolan, Pat McCluskey, Johnny Brookes, Gerry Mitchell, John Fallon, Paddy Gilmartin, Paddy Morahan. Seated: Tony Stenson, David Pugh, Tom Lally, Sean McManus, Mayor of Sligo; Johnny Cooke, Ken Turner, (Sligo Rovers player-manager), Padraic Fowley.
Sligo Rovers, 1970. Back row (l-r): Kevin Fallon, Johnny Brookes, David Pugh, Tom Lally, Gerry Mitchell (RIP), Pat McCluskey. Front row (l-r): Ken Turner (player-manager), Joey Wilson, Tony Fagan, Johnny Cooke, Dessie Gallagher (RIP), Tony Burns. Tony Stenson (inset).

Sligo's fascination with the FAI Cup reached fever pitch in 1970 when Rovers battled their way to the final of the prestigious competition for the first time in thi...

Sligo's fascination with the FAI Cup reached fever pitch in 1970 when Rovers battled their way to the final of the prestigious competition for the first time in thirty years.

Despite an indifferent season in the League, there was a high degree of optimism among the club's success-starved supporters as they made their way to Dublin for a first round clash with St. Patrick's Athletic at Richmond Park.

But nobody could have anticipated such a powerful performance from Rovers as they produced their best display of the season to trounce the fancied Dubliners by three goals to nil.

"What a fantastic result. What a memorable day for Sligo soccer. What a repayment after years of misfortune and failure", boasted The Sligo Champion.

"Sligo Rovers, the Cinderella team of Irish football, wrote the first chapter of what may yet prove to be a glittering fairy-tale by hammering St. Patrick's Athletic in the first round of the FAI Cup", the report went on.

"Playing with absolute determination and a considerable degree of sophistication and skill, they took the first giant step on the precarious ladder to glory, and in the process handed out a severe caution to any other Irish club anxious to lay hands on the coveted trophy this season".

The Champion said the team had finally come of age and had put to rest the shame of the defeat to non-league Longford Town the previous season.

"Sligo Rovers did more than win a cup game. They put football back on a sure footing in the town and if they can maintain their present tremendous form, the game in Sligo will have its most successful season in years", the newspaper predicted.

With winger, Johnny Cooke, in tremendous form, Rovers looked the livelier side from the start and it came as no surprise when they went in front after 26 minutes. A powerful goal-bound header from David Pugh was handled on the goal line by a St. Pat's defender and the Sligo centre-half made no mistake from the resultant penalty.

Having been outplayed for much of the first half, the Dubliners needed to get into their stride quickly after the break, but their hopes were shattered when Rovers struck for a second goal in the 50th minute. A corner from Cooke was finished to the net at the second attempt by Joe Wilson.

After that, it was all Rovers and Pugh decorated an outstanding performance when he converted his second penalty after a header from Johnny Brookes had been handled on the line.

No problems against Rialto

The second round draw was kind to Rovers, giving them a home draw against Leinster Senior League side, Rialto, and what looked like an easy passage to the semi-finals.

By now, Rovers had strengthened their squad by signing midfielder, Pat McCluskey, on loan from Glasgow Celtic, and the youngster was in brilliant form against Rialto.

It was all too easy for Rovers, and a sustained bout of pressure in the early stages brought the opening goal when Johnny Brookes fired to the net after 30 minutes.

Brookes and Cooke were involved in the build up to the second goal, scored by Wilson. Pugh headed a third from Tony Stenson's cross midway through the second half, and Gerry Mitchell completed the rout two minutes from time.

And so it was onto the semi-finals and a tough draw against multi-talented Cork Hibs.

The sides showed far too much respect for each other in the semi-final and a lacklustre scoreless draw was the outcome. But what a difference in the mid-week replay as the teams served up a cracker. After a nail-biting contest, Rovers pulled through on a 2-1 scoreline.

The Champion captured the sense of achievement in his match report: "Remember the date - April 1st, 1970 -- the day of atonement for thirty years of Cup failure, for here at Dalymount Park, Sligo Rovers smashed a strong Cork Hibs challenge to reach their first Cup final in three decades. And they did so in a fashion so ruthlessly efficient that they must have established themselves as strong contenders for their first ever FAI Cup.

"Sligo looked like winners and played like winners from the moment they took a sensational lead after only five minutes", The Champion reported.

It was Brookes who slammed Sligo in front, racing on to Pugh's long clearance to measure a perfect lob over the head of Hibs' keeper, Joe O'Grady, and into the net.

Hibs threw everything forward in an effort to retrieve the situation, but Sligo counter-attacked with great intelligence. It was from such a move that Rovers grabbed a second goal after twenty minutes.

Player/Manager, Ken Turner, broke up a Hibs attack, advanced swiftly from the back and laid on a defence-splitting pass for Gerry Mitchell, who fired low to the net.

With McCluskey and Tony Fagan dominating the midfield exchanges, Rovers produced some brilliant football. However, the Cork side regained the initiative in the closing stages of the first half and only outstanding defending by Pugh, Turner, Stenson, and Tony Burns, kept them at bay.

Six minutes from the end, Hibs were thrown a lifeline when Carl Davenport converted a penalty. From there to the finish, it was gripping stuff as Cork tried desperately for a dramatic equaliser. But heroic Sligo held out for a famous victory.

Sligo deserted for final

It seemed as if Sligo was deserted for the final, such was the volume of support for Rovers at Dalymount Park as they fought out a tense scoreless draw with Bohemians.

There were few thrills in the game as the occasion seemed to intimidate both teams. But, out of the blue, Rovers nearly clinched it in the dying minutes when Pugh, storming through the heart of the defence on a determined run, unleashed a scorching low shot which seemed destined for the net. With Rovers fans raring in triumph, Bohs 'keeper, Dinny Lowry, sprung cat-like across his goal to claw the ball around the upright.

It was the nearest any of the sides had come to breaking the deadlock in a disappointing final.

In stark contrast, the replay, again at Dalymount Park, was one of the best games ever witnessed at the famous Dublin venue -- certainly the best scoreless draw.

Reported The Champion: "This was a scoreless classic. After 200 minutes in all -- 110 of them packed with scintillating football -- Sligo Rovers and Bohemians failed to resolve a deadlock that produced wonderfully creative and entertaining soccer.

"After playing with controlled aggression and sparkling skill, Rovers experienced the heartbreak of having to go through it all again -- and the man they blame is Bohs 'keeper, Dinny Lowry, who again prevented Rovers from making Irish soccer history". A huge Sligo following witnessed a vintage performance from their team, but time and time again Lowry defied logic with an incredible display of goalkeeping. He produced breathtaking saves to keep out efforts from Mitchell (twice), Pugh and Stenson – and that was only in the first five minutes.

As the pattern of an all-action contest quickly took shape, the chances came think and fast at both ends. Rovers 'keeper, Tom Lally, had to be at his best on a couple of occasions as Bohs threatened to take control.

The pace was unrelenting after the break. Stenson and Brookes went within inches of giving Rovers the lead and then Lowry came to Bohs rescue again, this time thwarting Brookes who looked certain to score.

It was all Rovers in the closing minutes but they just couldn't find a way past the inspired Lowry, who added to his string of miraculous saves by somehow smothering a close range effort from Mitchell after good work by Fagan.

Extra time brought further drama. Tony O'Connell almost snatched a winner for Bohs, while at the other end, that man Lowry broke Sligo hearts again, tipping over a cracking shot from McCluskey.

And so it was back to Dalymount for the third instalment of match that had by now gripped the imagination of the soccer public throughout the country.

Once again, Rovers brought a huge army of supporters with them, convinced that it would be third time lucky.

Fortune deserted the brave

But fortune was to desert the brave on this occasion. Tony Stenson, Sligo's lion-hearted defender, sustained an ankle injury which led to his withdrawal early in the game, and later inspirational skipper, David Pugh, was concussed in a collision and played out the latter stages as a makeshift centre-forward. Ken Turner was also injured during the course of the match.

It had all looked so good for Rovers after 17 minutes when Johnny Cooke gave them the lead after Mitchell had raced past Ronnie Nolan and John Doran to create the opening.

Bohs switched Johnny Fullam to midfield in the second half and the move was instrumental in swinging the game in his team's favour.

It was Fullam who put Bohs on level terms when he finished Doran's cross to the net just five minutes after the interval.

The winner came on 62 minutes when Lowry's kick out bounced kindly into the path of Tony O'Connell, and the left winger beat Lally with an unstoppable shot to the roof of the net.

And so Rovers' great Cup crusade ended in bitter heartbreak, but those who followed them through that glorious season will never forget the wonderful adventure.

Rovers team in the final was: Lally, Turner, Burns, McCluskey, Pugh, Stenson, Cooke, Fagan, Mitchell, Fallon, Brookes. Sub, McKiernan for Stenson.(second replay).

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