European contenders face tough assignments on number of fronts
Sligo and Derry have bosses who are used to coping with curve balls, writes Seán Ryan
FOLLOWING in the footsteps of a legend is never easy but managers Ian Baraclough and Declan Devine managed it last season, when they both enjoyed instant success. This season it's been a case of 'follow that', and they get their chance to enhance their reputations further this week.
Baraclough, who will match wits with Ole Gunnar Solksjaer on Wednesday, took over at the Showgrounds from Paul Cook, who had guided Sligo Rovers to back-to-back FAI Cup successes. He promptly won the league title, and his reward is a home tie against Norway's Molde on Wednesday (7.45).
Devine took over from Stephen Kenny, a Derry City legend who, in two spells in charge, had transformed the club into Premier Division contenders and European specialists. Devine had been Kenny's assistant through all those good days, and he made his mark straight away with FAI Cup success.
On Thursday, Devine will lead Derry out in the Europa League away to Turkey's Trabzonspor. Their relative UEFA rankings – Derry 347th against Trabzonspor's 93rd – gives some idea of the monumental task ahead.
Baraclough and Devine have a lot in common, but whereas the Sligo boss has the ability to remain calm and unruffled, the Derryman is more likely to show his passionate nature; more likely to wear his heart on his sleeve.
At the end of last season, fascinated by Baraclough's calmness under pressure, and his transparent politeness in all his dealings with the media, I made enquiries at the Showgrounds as to whether he ever lost his cool, even to make a point. "Never," I was assured. "He's the same with everyone." Such calmness under pressure can be reassuring to players, and must have contributed hugely to Sligo's success.
Both managers have shown the ability to deal with the curve balls that come their way. The loss of leading scorer Danny North 12 months ago seemed likely to scupper Sligo's title hopes, but Mark Quigley found his shooting boots, and Sligo never lost hold of the first place they had initially secured in April.
In Devine's case, he inherited a squad, which was minus the goals of Eamon Zayed, James McClean, Dan Lafferty and Gareth McGlynn. That was a total of 54, which he had to replace. He didn't do too badly either, with Stephen McLaughlin and David McDaid hitting figures good enough to earn contracts in England.
This season, Devine reckoned that, with the loss of McDaid and McLaughlin, he had only to replace 34 goals. "It's coming down," he joked, and then made a telling point: "This year four of our ex-players have been involved with Northern Ireland and three with the Republic, and it's a testimony to the players coming through that they have been able to replace those guys."
He is also proud of the fact that the Boys Club from which Derry signed James McClean received £57,000 when the winger moved on to Sunderland. Devine has that special knack of identifying young talent and then nurturing it. Barry McNamee is this year's outstanding prospect, but he also has high hopes for Mark Griffin and Michael Rafter, two forwards he signed from Dundalk.
The challenge for Devine is to improve on last year's fifth-place finish. They are in second currently, hot on the heels of St Patrick's Athletic.
Baraclough, on the other hand, has had to endure a stuttering Sligo after a flying start, which saw them win their first eight games. The loss of Raf Cretaro, who had developed a fruitful partnership with new striker Anthony Elding, had a detrimental effect and his return is vital.
A measure of indiscipline – three red cards in six games – also crept in, with Elding the principal offender, claiming two of those cards.
The importance of Champions League football to the fans was underlined when the 3,800 seats for Wednesday's game were sold out three weeks in advance. Having enjoyed success in the FAI Cup and the league, I suggested that success in Europe might be the final frontier for the club, but Baraclough was having none of it. "The club has never won back-to-back league titles," he pointed out. "We still want to win the Cup again. There are a lot of things Sligo want to do."
He also believes that, after Shamrock Rovers qualified for the group stages of the Europa League, we should be attempting to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League. The impression given was that it was on his agenda, but not quite yet.
Of course, to succeed in Europe clubs need to play there regularly and, earlier in the season when Sligo had a clear lead, Baraclough warned there could be "seven or eight teams battling for three Euro places this season." That seemed far-fetched at the time, but not so now.
The Sligo boss also does a nice line in self-deprecation. When he pointed out that he had done his Pro Licence with Manchester United's Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, I asked if he had picked their brains. In reply, he was at pains to point out that these Premier League superstars had made him feel at home, alluding to the fact that he had never made it past the Championship.
For Baraclough, the next four days are full of potential – and danger. A clash with leaders St Patrick's Athletic today (3.0) and Wednesday's tie with Molde, both at the Showgrounds – it could be the best of times or the worst of times.