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Wednesday 3 September 2014

The sporting moments that made 2012: Fulfilling hope and creating history

EAMONN SWEENEY

Published 30/12/2012 | 05:00

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Mark Quigley hits the spot

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It's the afternoon of October 13. There is a minute of normal time left in the game. And Mark Quigley, having done what looked like a couple of improvised dance steps, is striking the ball on the penalty spot in The Showgrounds.

Quigley's foot is behind the ball but there is a lot more behind this kick. There's 35 years of longing for one thing, 35 years during which the population of Sligo, the capital of League of Ireland football, dreamed the impossible dream of a league title. And now, in this moment, the fans know that if this shot hits the net the dream will come true. That's a lot to be riding on one kick.

In most of those 35 years Rovers had as much chance of winning the league as the Mayan Prophecy did of coming true. But lately they had begun to hope. A third place in 2010 and a second place in 2011 under inspirational manager Paul Cook gave great hope to those convinced of the inevitability of mathematical sequences.

But, with the 2012 season in sight, Cook left to manage Accrington Stanley. He was replaced by an unknown named Ian Baraclough who arrived at the club less than a week before the first game of the season which he began with a squad so depleted the bench had to be filled out with untried local teenagers.

You could call what happened next The Miracle Under Benbulben. Rovers hit the top just over a month into the new season and dominated to such an extent that at one stage it appeared they might win the title with several games to spare before a couple of stutters meant that the showdown with St Pat's, title contenders themselves, assumed crucial proportions.

In what was almost a microcosm of their season, Rovers led the tie 2-0 at half-time thanks to two goals from local hero Rafaelle Cretaro but allowed themselves to be pegged back to 2-2. A draw would not be a disaster for the team but with two tricky matches remaining it would generate a perhaps fatal loss of momentum.

And then referee Damien Hancock pointed to the spot and it was all on Mark Quigley and every Rovers fan commenced a frantic internal argument about whether he was the right man to bear the burden of all this hope and history.

You couldn't, for example, describe Quigley as calm. His on-field demeanour is often that of a man conducting an argument between himself and his talent. For the first half of the season his talent had lost out and he had been virtually anonymous until rumours spread that he might be leaving.

That was precisely the moment when Quigley, like an addict somehow relieved to find himself hitting rock bottom because he knows that the only way is up, underwent a metamorphosis which made the transformation from Bruce Banner to The Incredible Hulk seem a mere change of clothes by comparison.

To put it bluntly, Mark Quigley put the team up on his back and carried it to the finishing line. It wasn't just that he averaged around a goal per game, it was the outrageous quality of his play, the ease with which he performed the apparently impossible, the sheer chutzpah which time and again transformed The Showgrounds into a theatre hosting A Night With Mark Quigley.

And, as Quigley made contact, 5,000 Sligo fans in the ground, and many more elsewhere, suddenly remembered that this was the man who could routinely strike 40- or 50-yard first-time passes, who was never happier than when essaying a lob or chip from nonsensical range, who gave the impression of having entered a hidden compact with the ball. Now all he had to do was score from 12 yards.

Pat's 'keeper Barry Murphy, like an animal mesmerised by the power of a King Cobra or a rookie gunslinger whose pistol doesn't get the chance to clear the holster, never even moved. Quigley's shot hit home, hope had been fulfilled and history created. In a moment.

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