SLIGO Rovers' spectacular transformation from a club on the brink of extinction to being one of the most progressive soccer institutions in the country is genuinely breathtaking, not just in terms of the relatively short timescale involved but also in the astonishing level of achievement on and off the pitch.
QUITE BY chance I came across an old edition of 'The Sligo Champio'n over the last few days. It was dated August 27, 2008, and the lead story carried the following headline: 'Plea for support as deadline looms to save Rovers'.
The club had warned that €130,000 was required before the end of August to keep Rovers in business. An initial €44,000 had been raised, leaving a sum of €86,000 to be secured within days.
The situation was so perilous that local politicians, including the then Mayor, Clr. Veronica Cawley, the then Chairman of Sligo County Council, Clr. Jude Devins, and former EU Commissioner, Ray MacSharry, issued a joint appeal to the people of Sligo to rescue the club.
That was just over four years ago and what an incredible journey Rovers have travelled since then.
It is a success story of epic proportions and the good news is that the sense of ambition within the club and the massive goodwill from Rovers' fan base and the wider community which helped shaped the remarkable turnaround is as strong as ever.
The latest indication of the club's visionary strategy going forward was underlined just before Christmas when they were successful in their application for funding under the Regional Sports Capital Programme.
A grant of €295,000 will enable the club to upgrade their excellent all-weather facility, resurface the playing surface and provide a new training pitch at the Railway End of the ground.
Work on the latest in a range of major ground development projects at the Showgrounds will commence shortly and will be completed within months.
It will establish the Showgrounds as one of the top soccer venues in the country and provide Rovers with the sort of infrastructure which will allow them to pursue their ambition of creating a top class regional football academy in Sligo.
As was the case in that critical period in 2008, when the local community, political figures, the soccer family and club members put their shoulder to the wheel to ensure Rovers' very survival, this latest development is also the product of a huge collaborative effort from within and outside the club.
As Chairman, Dermot Kelly, noted, the club's persuasive case for Government funding had significant support at community and political level.
The Minister for Sport, Michael Ring, visited the Showgrounds on a number of occasions, witnessing at first hand the passionate support which the club generates from all corners of the region, and this gave him a tangible understanding of just what Rovers are all about and the scale of their ambitious plans for the future.
The application for funding was also backed by Oireachtas members, Tony McLoughlin TD, a founding member of Rovers Development Committee, Minister for Small Business, John Perry TD, Michael Colreavy TD, and Senators Imelda Henry, Susan O'Keefe, Marc MacSharry, Paschal Mooney and Michael Comiskey.
Minister Perry, who sponsors Rovers Under 19 squad, believes the funding will not only see the Showgrounds becoming the premier regional centre for soccer in the western region but will also help the venue to evolve as one of the finest League of Ireland facilities in the entire country.
Deputy McLoughlin, a lifelong supporter and founding member of the club's Development Committee, says the latest project is just another example of the club's outstanding progress on and off the pitch in recent years. The Showgrounds is now well on its way to becoming the premier soccer venue in the country, he maintains.
Confirmation of Government funding for further development works at the Showgrounds completed a sensational year for Rovers.
In terms of infrastructural development, it follows on the opening of the splendid new VW Connolly Stand, a facility which greatly enhanced the overall facilities at the Showgrounds and lent so much atmosphere to those unforgettable big occasions at the venue during the season.
But, of course, every club is ultimately judged on its achievements on the field of play and in that context 2012 was spectacularly successful.
Despite untimely upheaval at Board and management level just before the start of the season, Rovers stormed to their first League title in 35 years and only their third in the history of the club.
Such was their dominance of the League that they had the title safely tucked away with two games still to play - a truly extraordinary achievement when you consider that they were working off a comparatively small squad and had to carry a fair share of injuries during the course of the campaign.
While most of the squad was already in place by the time Ian Baraclough succeeded Paul Cook as manager, it still required shrewd and intelligent stewardship by the new boss to chart the team's progress through a difficult campaign.
Individually and collectively, Rovers proved themselves worthy Champions and all those involved - manager, coaches, players, management committee, backroom team and supporters - can take justifiable pride in the part they played in making 2012 such a wonderful year for the Bit O'Red.
The challenge now is to keep the momentum going. Rovers set the bar last year and already the indications are that their main competitors will spare no effort to topple them next year.
The prospect of a more competitive League should inspire rather than inhibit the Bit O'Red, however, and another rousing year is in prospect at the Showgrounds. Roll on 2013.