'Nothing is impossible' for bullish Baraclough's men
Sligo boss convinced Rovers can mix it with Europe's elite
IN 2008, two young coaches with very different football backgrounds were placed together in a workshop as they studied for their 'A' licence.
One was a decorated striker who will always be remembered for his Champions League winning exploits; the other was a hardened pro who spent his life in the lower leagues.
Fate has brought Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ian Baraclough together again, in the unlikely setting of the west of Ireland for a second-round qualifier in the competition that will always be associated with the Norwegian baby-faced assassin.
"It will be nice to meet up with Ian again," smiled the affable Solskjaer as he arrived with his Molde team for their eve-of-match training session. He embraced his Sligo Rovers counterpart before it got under way.
The niceties will be put to one side come 6.0 this evening. Molde, who reached the Europa League group stages last year, have ambitions of going far in the premier competition this year, with Solskjaer dreaming of one day bringing them to Old Trafford.
Sligo Rovers know there is a €350,000 prize for winning this tie, which would guarantee them a minimum of €725,000 from their European exploits.
The Showgrounds was abuzz with activity yesterday as last-minute painting and construction work was completed to make sure everything is perfect. All tickets available to Sligo fans were sold out by June 26 and the sense of anticipation around the town is palpable, with the only downer being the fact that those who missed out won't be able to watch the match on TV.
"It's 36 years since we were last in the pinnacle competition in Europe," said Baraclough, with reference to the 1977 loss at the hands of Red Star Belgrade. "There's a lot of people around who probably wondered if they would ever see this day again."
For Baraclough, it is also a big deal. He has come in for extra attention in his native land because, remarkably, he is the only English manager in this season's Champions League.
The real significance of this occasion is for Irish football, however. And, with Drogheda United and St Patrick's Athletic exiting at the first hurdle last week, there is pressure on Sligo Rovers and Derry City – who play Trabzonspor in the Europa League tomorrow – to avoid a first wipeout since 1999. As unseeded teams, they face a daunting task.
Baraclough feels that it is still possible for a League of Ireland side to emulate Shamrock Rovers' achievement of qualifying for the Europa League group stages in 2011 and possibly even go further by crossing into the promised land of the Champions League.
"It's not impossible," he said. "Nothing is impossible. You break that word down, break it up into 'I'm possible'.
"As the club grows, you start to get more experience. Eventually, someone will do it if they have the belief.
"If we all start thinking it can't be done, then it won't be done."
In the short term, Baraclough has plenty to ponder, with the fitness of Raffaele Cretaro and Danny North set to shape his final selection. Tactically, he will have to decide whether to go with two strikers or a solitary front man and, in either event, faces a decision between Anthony Elding, recent recruit Dave McMillan and North.
Veteran Joseph Ndo would expect to play, but was substituted against St Pat's to give the team more width and that factor will also come into consideration here. Surprisingly, regular right-back Alan Keane is set to miss out.
The financial clout of Molde was emphasised last week when they re-signed defender Vegard Forren from Southampton for a fee of €2m; he only made the move to St Mary's for €4m in January.
Solsjkaer's men, who started this year in search of a third successive title, languish in 10th spot, just three points off the bottom, a position that can be attributed to a haul of two points from their opening seven games. It suggests they have vulnerabilities and Baraclough is confident, although the priority from the first leg is keeping the tie alive.
"It's a knockout competition," he said. "We ask for a bit of patience from the crowd as well. Yes I expect to win – I expect to win every home game – but it's about setting down a marker and making sure we put ourselves in a position to win over 180 minutes."
Solskjaer has been impressed by footage of Sligo, after initially expecting their approach to be similar to a lower league English side. He anticipates a close tie and, given his background, won't be taking any outcome for granted. This is a competition which lends itself to drama.
Sligo Rovers (probable) – Rogers, Henderson, Peers, E McMillan, Davoren; Ndo; Lynch, Cawley, Conneely, Gaynor; D McMillan.
Molde (probable) – Nyland, Linnes, Toivio, Hovland, Simonsen; Berg-Hestad, Hussain, Ekpo, Moraes; Berget; Chukwu
Ref – A Boucaut (Belgium).