Molde clash revives memories for Gavin
Sligo Rovers youth development manager, Gavin Dykes, appreciates more than most what participation in European football means to the club.
He was captain of his home-town team when they won their only game in Europe back in 1994 and now he's helping to groom the stars of the future.
As a key member of Ian Baracough's backroom team, Dykes is central to the squad's preparations for tomorrow's eagerly-awaited clash with FC Molde at the Showgrounds in the first leg of the second qualifying round of the Champions' League. And the big occasion will bring the memories flooding back from Rovers exciting campaign in the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1994.
Earlier that year, the Bit O'Red won a big domestic treble - the first division championship, the Shield and the FAI Cup under the shrewd guidance of manager, Willie McStay.
Dykes, a fearless defender, captained the all-conquering squad and then had the honour of leading them into European action, first against Floriana of Malta and later against top Belgian side, FC Brugge.
The first game away to Malta ended in a 2-2 draw.
"It was a strange game" Dykes recalls. "We had our full-back Robbie Brunton sent off for time wasting and we had to play over half the game with ten men in scorching heat.
"We did well to hold on for a 2-2 draw and set ourselves up nicely for the return leg in the Showgrounds"
Floriana engaged in all sorts of gamesmanship in the build-up to the second game, even complaining about the height of the goalposts at the Showgrounds shortly before kick-off. "A UEFA delegate had to come on the pitch and measure the goalposts while the two teams were warming up," says Dykes.
"A goal by Jumbo Brennan was enough to win it for us.
"It was the club's only victory to date in European football so it was a great honour to captain the team on that occasion"
Willie McStay had returned to Glasgow Celtic by the European adventure got under way and Chris Rutherford and Tony Fagan, two legendary figures in the club's history, were in charge of the Rovers squad for the games against Floriana.
"They prepared brilliantly for the two games and got us through to the next round, which was rare enough for Irish teams in those days"
Former Wimbledon FA Cup final hero, Lawrie Sanchez, was in charge when Rovers took on Brugge in the second round.
They put up a gallant performance at the Showgrounds before losing 2-1 in the first leg and then lost 3-1 in the away fixutre in Belgium.
"Brugge were on a different level. Their team was full of top class international players and it was an achievement just to be on the same pitch as them", reflects Dykes.
"We actually played very well in both games but we just couldn't live with their sheer class.
"Still, it was a wonderful experience and it was certainly one of the highlights of my playing career"
Now the former captain is in the thick of all the excitement of European football again." he says.
The last few years have been a real rollercoaster ride of success for Rovers and Dykes believes the work done now at under-age level will ensure the progress continues.
Among the exciting crop of young players at the club is Gavin's son, Jake, who captained the Summerhill College team to All-Ireland glory this year and also played for the Irish schoolboys' team.
He's one of several players from the club's successful under 19 team who will be hoping to make the breakthrough to the senior ranks over the coming years.
"We've got an exceptional group of talented youngsters," enthuses Dykes.
"The club is structured now to encourge the promotion of home-grown talent and hopefully we will see a number of these young lads coming through over the next few seasons."