independent

Thursday 24 April 2014

LOVE LIFE, LOVE ROVERS

Jim Gray reflects on a lifetime spent following and reporting on the Bit O'red

I SUPPOSE you always remember the guy you started work with. That's why I'll never forget one Len Vallard. He was the first Sligo Rovers manager I worked with in the early 1970s, an affable, dapper man, whose penchant for royal blue blazers, matching shirt and tie and grey slacks gave the impression of a retired naval officer more than a football manager.

He was, in fact, employed as a player/coach, which served only to magnify his shortcomings, because his performances as a bow-legged left back were even less effective than his attempts at coaching. To be fair, with half his team based in Derry, and several more in Dublin, it was hard to define exactly how he spent his days in Sligo. We both knew it wouldn't last.

It was around that time, too, that the late, lamented Evening Press started running banner headlines about Jimmy Greaves coming to Sligo. To put that in context for younger readers, Greavsie had been a member of the English squad which won the World Cup only seven years earlier, and was one of the game's genuine superstars, a natural goalscorer with record-breaking stats that would put the likes of Wayne Rooney or Ronaldo in the shade. He was past his best, but the prospect of him coming to the League of Ireland's basement club seemed outrageously fanciful.

And so it turned out – some friend of a friend of a friend of an agent's agent etc had concocted the story and the Rovers committee had apparently swallowed the fairytale hook, line and sinker.

That was the kind of club we were then, forever flitting between farce and fantasy, stumbling from one season to the next, miraculously clinging on through the re-election process, being safe bets at the start of every season to finish in the bottom quarter of the table at best.

It's important to remember the type of club we were to fully appreciate the club we've become.

The 1977 season should have been the catalyst for a bright new dawn, but it wasn't. It literally came out of nowhere, because if relegation had been a feature of the domestic game then we might not even have been in the league which we eventually won!

And despite what was then a rare FAI Cup final appearance the following year, Billy Sinclair's great team soon disintegrated, and we were back in familiar territory before we knew it, wondering if '77 had been a mere false oasis in our forlorn desert.

But given the historic significance of that year, it's fitting to remember this week the players who fashioned it under Sinclair's ultra professional guidance – superb players such as Alan Paterson, Paul Fielding, Graham Fox, Tony Fagan, Michael Betts, Tony Stenson, Chris Rutherford, Charlie Ferry, Gary Hulmes, Paul McGee and Mick Leonard will forever be remembered as among the best we ever had.

Locals, Padraig McManus and Gerry Harrigan also contributed, as, appropriately, did one of our greatest ever servants, David Pugh, who played one game that season.

The first ever FAI Cup in '83 rekindled the magic, but, not unusually, it was to be another 11 years before we had anything to shout about again, when Willie McStay's magical young team achieved a unique treble of first division championship, Shield and our second FAI Cup. However, optimism turned to an acceptance that this was yet another unexpected elevation and we might as well get used to the mundane battle for survival rather than entertain any highfalutin notions of grandure.

But that all changed with the arrival of Paul Cook (this is not a time for blind begrudgery) and Dr. Dermot Kelly. And talented and committed players. And Frank Byrne's Lotto. And Vincent Nally's financial wizardry. And Peter Henry's and Brendan Byrne's 400 Club. And Ray Gallagher's and Kevin Colreavy's Development Committee. And George Mullen, Joe and Alan Cleary and Andy Tiernan's miraculous playing surface. And Keith O'Dwyer's excellent promotion of the club. And new stands. And generous sponsors. And European football. And back-to-back FAI Cups. And Forza Rovers. And all-ticket sell outs. And the jigsaw's final piece, Ian Baraclough. And almost inevitably, LEAGUE CHAMPIONS.

Although illness has restricted my attendance at matches in recent months, I've really been captivated by Baraclough's charismatic team this season. It's the first time since my teenage years that I've been able to follow Rovers, home and away, as a supporter rather than as a reporter, bringing my young grandson, Daniel, to the Showgrounds and watching him nurture a love for his home town team which, hopefully, will last his lifetime. Youngsters like him have discovered, joyfully, that you don't have to live in Manchester, London or Liverpool in order to have a team you can be proud of. That is among this team's greatest achievement.

On the last occasion I wrote something like this, in the aftermath of the 1994 FAI Cup victory, I referred to myself as a fan with a typewriter and listed a number of people known to me who had passed away between the '83 and '94 wins. Because the gap is 35 years on this occasion, allied to a distrust of my memory, I won't attempt a similar roll call. But in those years, I have lost my last remaining grandparent, both my parents, my mother-in-law, and several aunts, uncles, cousins and some close friends. I've also been blessed with new life in my family circle. Many of you reading this will have had similar experiences. That's life, and what Rovers have achieved this season is a small but significant part of what gives it meaning. Maybe you have to be from Sligo to understand that. As the ad says (kinda):

Love life, Love Rovers.

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