JUST WHEN you think you've seen it all from the League of Ireland, it goes and throws up another surprise.
That's why the biggest shock from the opening weekend of the 2010 season last week didn't come on the field (though a young UCD came close with their superb 3-0 win away to Drogheda United), but outside the grounds and at the turnstiles.
A crowd of over 3,000 -- double the expected attendance -- paid in to see champions Bohemians begin the defence of their league title with a win at home to Sporting Fingal while, on the other side of the country 24 hours later, Sligo Rovers had to delay kick-off for their season opener against Shamrock Rovers due to crowd congestion, the aggregate gate of 6,000 for both games a big surprise to many who expected the much-maligned 2010 season to see a drop-off in support.
A late kick-off shouldn't be something to be proud of but, given that Sligo struggled to get gates into the four figures in recent times, a 3,000-plus gate against the visitors from Dublin was welcome, especially as it was the club's first chance to get their last game out of the system, that bitterly disappointing FAI Cup defeat to Sporting Fingal last November.
Only recently, local paper the Sligo Weekender lamented the fact that, of the estimated 5,000 Sligo fans who went to Dublin to support the side in the Cup final, less than a third would end up going through the turnstiles at the Showgrounds on a regular basis, but so far this season there is some promise.
"I suppose it's not ideal to have a game starting late but, all the same, it was great to see the Showgrounds packed," says Conor O'Grady, the club's captain and long-serving midfielder ahead of tonight's league game away to their FAI Cup conquerors.
"The Showgrounds is a great place to play when it's full like that, and that's what you want, as a player, a big gate for a big game against someone like Shams," added O'Grady, who follows the proud Sligo tradition -- it's bred into them -- of only referring to their own club as 'Rovers' and calling the Dublin side 'Shams'.
"I think the crowd was a spill-over from the FAI Cup final. We had a lot of people in Tallaght for the final that day who hadn't been to the Showgrounds or to see Rovers in a long time; we also had some new supporters.
"Some of them carried that interest on into the new season and came out to support us, so please God they'll stick with us throughout the season. Bohs had a good crowd for their game, so it was good to see some crowds out on the opening day of the season. I just hope they don't all disappear now.
"Last week, home to Shams, was a great way to start the season and, in fairness to them, they brought a great crowd of supporters to Sligo. Hopefully, we can bring a few supporters of our own to Dublin tonight to see us get a win and get our season really started," added O'Grady.
Tonight's game away to Fingal has a real edge as Sporting lifted the FAI Cup final at Sligo's expense on the final day of last season, defeat harder to take for Rovers as they were favourites and were also in front in the game but Fingal came back to win 2-1. So vengeance may be an issue for some Sligo players. "That's not the case for me as I didn't play in the final," says O'Grady, suspended for the final. "Some of the lads who played that day may still feel hurt by losing the final so they may be out for revenge tonight, but I think we need to move on. Sporting beat us on the day fair and square -- they won the Cup so good luck to them."
Even though he's only 29, O'Grady is now in his 14th season of League of Ireland football. Apart from three seasons with Cork City and a one-year stay at Derry City, he's spent his entire career with Sligo but all he has to show for it, in terms of silverware, is a League Cup medal (1998) and a Division One title (2005).
"It's time this club won something," said the former U21 cap. "I have been in the League of Ireland for a long time now, but I haven't won anything major yet. I was in my first season with Sligo when we won the League Cup 12 years ago but I didn't really appreciate that; I was still in school at the time so it all went over my head a bit.
"I don't honestly think that we will be in a position to win the league this season. We're aiming to finish as high up the table as possible and hopefully win a cup or two, but we're not ready yet to win a league. But, if we can progress as a club and as a team, maybe we will be in a position to challenge the likes of Bohs and Shams."
Fingal hope to build on the positives shown in last week's narrow defeat away to Bohs. "The application and attitude of our players against Bohemians was first-class and I feel for them that they came from Dalymount Park with nothing," said Sporting boss Liam Buckley.
"However, the determination to recover from that setback has been evident in training this week and I'm expecting another committed performance against Sligo Rovers. We played Paul Cook's side twice last year, losing our duel in the EA Sports Cup but overcoming them in the FAI Ford Cup final, so there will be little between the sides again this time."