Fago: Simply the best
TONY FAGAN, who captained Sligo Rovers to their first FAI Cup triumph in 1983, and enjoyed a distinguished twenty year career with the club, comes under the spotlight this week as Michael Moran continues his series of articles to mark the 75th anniversary of Sligo Rovers F.C.
>TONY FAGAN, who captained Sligo Rovers to their first FAI Cup triumph in 1983, and enjoyed a distinguished twenty year career with the club, comes under the spotlight this week as Michael Moran continues his series of articles to mark the 75th anniversary of Sligo Rovers F.C.
THE celebrated sports writer, Con Houlihan, likened him to "Jesus Christ"; author, Eamon Sweeney, in his acclaimed dairy of a season in the life of Sligo Rovers, "There's Only One Red Army", dubbed him Al Pacino. But, to generations of fans, he's simply 'Fago', simply the best.
Asked at the club's recent 75th Anniversary celebration function why he had never pursued a career 'across the water', his reply summed him up succinctly.
"I married before I was 21, I lived one hundred yards from the Showgrounds, one hundred yards from the Church and one hundred yards from my local and was playing for Sligo Rovers. What more could you want?"
Typical Fago. A somewhat modest hero off the pitch, mercurial on it.
Yet, his response couldn't disguise the fact that for twenty odd years he was an integral part of the Showgrounds scene, a stalwart mid-field cajoler, tough and tigerish in the tackle and one of the true characters of the game.
To try to do him justice in mere words is difficult, and is perhaps the best measure of the man himself.
A local boy from the M.C.R. area, fate decreed that he had to endure the heartache of walking past the famous trophy as a three-times loser, before he fittingly became the first captain of Sligo Rovers ever to lift the F.A.I. Cup in 1983. He won a League Championship medal in 1977, played in Europe and in League Cup Finals, and was capped for the League of Ireland in 1981, while his record number of 590 appearances is unlikely ever to be surpassed.
He earned the respect of colleagues and opponents alike and to this day his name regularly crops up at League of Ireland grounds throughout the country, as old friends and foes alike enquire as to the "bearded warrior", in testimony to his remarkable impact in over two decades of domestic football.
Fago's exploits have assumed legendary proportions...the time he had the audacity to put his foot on the ball and wave to the crowd in Rovers European Cup tie against the mighty Red Star in Belgrade, his 'piggy-back leap' onto the back of Tony Stenson as the big Sheffield-born defender scored their equaliser against Bohs in '83, Fagan's smile as wide as that of a Cheshire cat.
And, when other players often talked themselves into a booking, Fagan had the uncanny knack of actually persuading referees not to brandish a yellow card.
One incident in a match against the then lowly Longford Town underlines the point. Longford had just introduced a local youngster for his debut in front of a sparse attendance at their former Abbeycarton ground. Fago delivered a 'welcoming' tackle.
Referee Eamon Farrell told him he was 'very late', to which he retorted, Nobby Stiles like, "At my age, I got there as early as I could.' Only Fago could get away with it.
As Tony reflected on a distinguished career, he was quite clearly anxious to 'go back to his roots' and the street footballers of Mail Coach Road.
"Without the Devaney family, I would never have achieved what I did. The late Charlie Devaney ran both youth and junior football and he gave me my first taste of organised soccer," he acknowledged.
Fagan played at under-12 for St. Joseph's, where he remained up to16 years of age, winning local league titles in the process.
Ironically, he never played junior football as such and from St. Joseph's went to the Boys Club in O'Connell Street, an oasis in the desert of boredom, ahead of its time and established by Fr. Gerry Donnelly.
It was, as Fago explained, 'a place where we all went' and where Fr. Michael Donnelly also helped shape his future.
In the 1960's the Boys Club had a minor team and Fagan was asked to join. With players such as Tony and Sean Rooney, John Devaney, Dessie Gallagher, Gerry Cryan, Denis Connolly and Mickey McLoughlin, the Sligo side won Connacht Cups.
He also played G.A.A. for Mhuire Naoifa under Dick Kent and Roger Eames and for the county Minor team, holding down a right-half forward position, but leaving before Sligo went to the All-Ireland Minor Final in 1968.
Tony spent the summer playing soccer in the 'money competitions' in Buncranna, Co. Donegal, and he soon began to attract attention.
"Derry City were supposed to come and watch me. I was told that their then manager, Jimmy Hill, was interested in signing me. Sligo Rovers also heard of it and they approached me," he recalled.
Derry's loss was certainly Sligo's gain. The Rovers Secretary, Jimmy Gilmartin, talked to Fagan at his place of work in the former Hansons Factory and so began his senior crusade.
"I used to go out and watch Sligo Rovers and it was always my aim to play for them. It was a dream come true to sign. I had fulfilled my ambition," he said.
In the days ahead of 4-4-3 and other varying formations, Fagan operated initially as an inside right.
"I was aware that Tony Bartley was coming to replace Shay Keogh as manager. I was also aware that I needed to do some training on my own, because people had told me that fitness levels were so much higher in the League of Ireland and I wanted to be ready for it.
"I was in the Showgrounds one night when I saw a group of people coming towards me. It was some members of the Rovers Committee and the new manager. Bartley encouraged me to sign and told me he would look after me if I did," he recalled.
Tony Fagan was now a Sligo Rovers player and his elevation to the first team was another indication of his single-minded determination to succeed. He set demanding standards for himself and maintained them up to his retirement twenty years or so later.
"I actually made fast progress and made my debut in the first week or two," he outlined.
Fagan's first match was against great rivals, Shamrock Rovers, in the Shield at the Showgrounds on September 10th, 1967. In a strange twist, his last game in a Rovers shirt came in an F.A.I. Cup semi-final tie at home to Shams in 1987.
Marking him on his debut was Johnny Fullam, and their paths were also to meet at the crossroads of destiny in later years.
"I was supposed to be playing at half-back and marking Mick Leech. However, Bartley played me as an inside forward and Fulham was looking after me. I scored when their 'keeper spilled the ball and I slid it in. Dessie Gallagher also scored and we were winning two-nil, but Shams pulled it back and we eventually drew two-two," he said.
The Sligo team included Bob Dawson in goal and also featured David Pugh, Gerry Mitchell, Paddy McDonnell, Jimmy Burnside, Johnny Brookes and Jim McGuinness.
Rovers had to apply for re-election to the league at the end of the 1967-68 season and though results were again far from encouraging the following year, the F.A.I. Cup offered renewed optimism, especially when the draw pitted them against non-league, Longford Town.
"We were overwhelming favourites going into the match. I remember Longford had put hay on the pitch and they just got stuck into us. The English lads in our side didn't fancy it and it was a shambles really.
"It was an embarrassment to lose and our supporters burned the Rovers flags that day. It was a big disappointment," Tony commented on a two-nil defeat by the Leinster League outfit.
Tony Bartley left for Limerick within three weeks and Ken Turner took over as caretaker manager for the remainder of the season.
Turner was at the helm as the 1969-70 campaign began, and the addition of new faces from England brought hopes of a bright future.
Rovers finished 8th in the league and the F.A.I. Cup saw them win three-nil away to St. Patrick's Athletic in the opening round. Rialto were defeated four-nil at the Showgrounds as Sligo qualified for the semi-final for the first time since 1966.
"Things really took off against Cork Hibernians. The first match finished scoreless, but the replay was something else. I think it was one of the best games I ever played in and was also one of my best performances.
"Cork Hibs were expected to beat us. They had players like Dave Wiggington and Carl Davenport. For sheer effort, the replay was incredible. Over the 90 minutes, there was no respite; it was up and down the pitch all through. There wasn't a chance to draw breath," Fago recounted.
Rovers took the lead through Johnny Brookes on five minutes and Gerry Mitchell put them two ahead, before Davenport got one back from the penalty spot. Sligo held on and Bohemians, and Johnny Fullam, awaited in the Final.
"Having beaten Cork, we weren't lulled into the trap of thinking we had the hard part done. Bohs were playing at home in Dalymount Park and in the '70s that was a great advantage for them. There was, of course, a tremendous buzz around the town at the time and I can still recall the hoards of supporters making their way to Dublin for the Final," Fago said.
It was a journey the fans were to make three times, as Bohs finally ended the search for a first cup success.
"The first two games flashed by. I remember David Pugh had a great shot saved by Dinny Lowry, but that is about it," he commented.
In the second replay, Johnny Cooke put Rovers ahead, but then.... up popped Johnny Fullam.
"A ball came down the right and Johnny ran on. I was about two or three yards behind him and didn't think anything would come of it. However, he slid the ball into the net with me trailing in his wake.
"Tony O'Connell then got the winner and obviously that was the first big disappointment in my career. We knew what it meant to the people of Sligo and we were all deflated," he admitted.
The Blaxnit Trophy provided the chance of some compensation, but having beaten Ballymena and Derry City, Coleraine won the Final 4-1 on aggregate, Johnny Cooke getting the only goal of the game in Windsor Park, before the Irish League side won the second leg comprehensively at Dalymount Park.
"We were hammered in Dublin. They were the better team and deserved to win," Fagan agreed.
The Showgrounds conveyor belt saw players come and go as success remained a distant dream in the early '70s, but the arrival of Billy Sinclair, who had played with Kilmarnock, Chelsea and Glentoran, from Marconi in Australia, was about to change all that.
Rovers reached their first cup final since 1970 under Sinclair, but went down 4-1 on aggregate to Limerick in the League Cup decider in the 1975-76 season, the first leg being marred by violence in the Market's Field. Rovers trailed 4-0 from that tie and though they pulled a goal back at the Showgrounds, there was to be no winner's medal for Fagan.
Rovers lost an F.A.I. Cup semi-final replay to Bohemians (5-0) after a 1-1 draw and a late Mick Leech goal gave Shamrock Rovers a one-nil win in the League Cup Final of 1976-77.
Sinclair, however, was about to write a glorious chapter in the annals of 'The Bit O'Red', as Rovers won the League of Ireland Championship for the first time in forty years.
"Sinclair was a brilliant manager, the best I ever played under. Billy was, however, a very distant man and you never knew what he was thinking. He wanted a more or less full-time set up, with one or two part-timers involved.
"He was very demanding and wanted all the players to have a high fitness level, part-time or full-time it didn't matter to him. Many nights I was physically sick at training, but I was young enough to get through it and I wanted to be part of what was a great set-up," Fagan stated.
Sinclair was determined to make Rovers a hard team to beat and he assembled a squad with many talented players.
He also swapped the traditional 'blackboard' for 'bottle-tops' to discuss tactics and ensured that his players had 'steak and tomato' before games.
"Billy was something special. He would move the bottle tops to show you what he wanted on the pitch. During that league winning season our fitness certainly stood to us. We had only a panel of about fourteen players and we didn't get any bad injuries.
"Everyone wanted to play. Some of the matches were very hard. At Finn Park against Finn Harps, they pounded us into the goal, but Paul McGee broke away and got the winner and that is the sort of luck you need, if you are to succeed," he declared.
Fagan was delighted to be involved in the league winning side, adding that it was a particularly proud occasion for a local player.
"It was a great thrill and an incredible time. I had a great affinity with the club and I knew what it meant to so many people to win the title," he went on.
The European Cup brought Rovers into opposition with Red Star Belgrade and Rovers held them scoreless at half time. Only in the last twenty minutes did Red Star impose their authority. They eventually won 3-0, a scoreline repeated in the second leg at the Showgrounds.
"The present European system means that you can't draw the cream of teams as we did back then. Red Star were a famous side at the time and our game against them gave our fans an opportunity to see quality opposition," Fago said.
The high of the league triumph was replaced by another F.A.I. Cup Final defeat to Shamrock Rovers the following season.
"They were the team of Dunphy, Giles and Treacy and it was again desperately disappointing the way things worked out," he maintained.
His views on the now infamous penalty?
"The 'art of diving' was coming into the game and it was one of the harshest decisions I have ever seen. Steve Lynex wasn't fouled, but referee John Carpenter was one of those officials you couldn't talk to. It was his way, or no way.
"We all make mistakes, but he never held his hands up. To me, it was never, ever a penalty," Fagan replied.
Patsy McGowan, another man greatly admired by his trusted lieutenant, replaced Sinclair at the start of the 1979-80 season.
"I spent all my days playing against Patsy's teams in derby matches between Sligo Rovers and Finn Harps. Harps had some great teams and I loved going down to Ballybofey to play against them.
"Patsy was different to Sinclair. He left you going out of the dressing room on a high, he told you how good you were and what you could achieve. He also brought players with him to Sligo and that was a reflection on what they thought of him. Players don't follow bad managers," he claimed.
There was to be another F.A.I. Cup Final reversal in 1981, Dundalk winning two-nil to leave Fagan-the Rovers Captain- wondering if he would ever get a cherished medal.
"I was getting on in years and I did begin to wonder if it were my last chance for success. My first Final was in 1970 and eleven years on I was still disappointed. Some people don't even stay in the game eleven years, never mind having to lose three Finals," Fagan continued.
McGowan ultimately left to return to Finn Harps and Paul Fielding took over as Rovers manager and brought together a mixture of full and part-time players as he moved into the hot seat.
Recipe for success
"That was the recipe that had brought success in the past. Any time Sligo Rovers did well, they had full-timers and part-timers. Paul Fielding was very young and while I was a bit surprised he got the job, someone had to do it," Fagan said.
Rovers were stationed in the basement of the league for most of the season and finished in the bottom four. Andy Elliott's penalty gave them a one-nil win over Home Farm in the First Round of the F.A.I. Cup in 1983.
Shamrock Rovers came to the Showgrounds for a quarter-final tie and it was a Fagan free kick, which pushed Sligo through to the semi-finals.
Harry McLoughlin had scored the other goal in a 2-1 win, though Fagan had a bit of a battle to get the chance to hit his now memorable winner.
"All the lads were queuing up for it. I just told Andy Elliott to leave it and said to him that I was going to hit it for the corner. I told him to make sure he followed up, if their 'keeper parried it.
"Thankfully, the ball went in and we were back in the semi-final of the cup again," he said.
Fagan's reputation as a bit of a 'spy' took something of a battering as he went to watch opponents, the then non-league Cobh Ramblers in an Intermediate Cup semi-final.
"They had beaten Finn Harps and Dundalk and I couldn't figure it out. I came back and told Fielding they were useless and we had nothing to worry about. I should have told him they were good! he quipped.
"Cobh were on a high when we played them in the first game in Cork. The whole of the area seemed to be behind them. We had to walk one hundred yards from our bus to get to Flower Lodge such was the crowd.
"The atmosphere was brilliant throughout the four games. Luckily, we came back from two down in the last game to win three-two and I was now facing into my fourth Final," Fagan added.
"Bohemians were going well in the league and again we were underdogs. It didn't look too good for us when they went ahead before half time. Chris Rutherford had to go off and Tony Stenson picked up a nasty injury. I looked around and saw James Tiernan coming onto the pitch in his suit to treat 'Stennie' and he kept him on the pitch.
"If Stennie had gone off, I believe we would have lost. Tony cracked home a great equaliser and that showed the sort of player he was. When we scored, Bohs seemed to lose heart. I think they felt we couldn't beat them, but once we were level we took the game to them and Harry scored the sort of winner only he could," he said.
Fagan got his hands on the F.A.I. Cup at last, but some over anxious officials tried to dampen the biggest celebration in Sligo Rovers history.
"I think some of the F.A.I. committee were going off to Europe and they couldn't wait to get us up for the cup. We, meanwhile, wanted to savour the moment and to enjoy it with the fans.
"I knew everyone in that crowd and they all wanted to shake my hand. It was a great honour to lift the cup and the memories of the homecoming will always remain with me.
"We stopped in the 'old haunts' we had pulled into when we lost on the way home, but this time was different. When we hit the top of Pearse Road it was unbelievable. We came down M.C.R., stopped outside Caheny's and I saw my late mother and father there.
"The town was electric and to be captain of the first Rovers team ever to win the cup meant an awful lot to me," he said.
Fagan had his second European encounter against Valkeakosken Haka of Finland in the Cup Winners' Cup and stayed at the Showgrounds for another four years. He played in the last competitive game at Milltown in an F.A.I. Cup semi-final against Shamrock Rovers, a one-one draw in a second leg tie, after the first match had finished scoreless.
Noel Larkin's late winner gave the Dubliners victory in the third meeting at the Showgrounds. It was to prove Fagan's last appearance for the club.
He went to Finn Harps where Chris Rutherford was manager ("It was a place I always wanted play") but a broken ankle picked up in a crucial St. Stephen's Day clash with fellow promotion chasing Drogheda United brought his career to a premature end in his second season at Ballybofey.
He was to return to manage the Rovers Reserve team under Willie McStay and continued in the role during the tenure of Laurie Sanchez and Steve Cotterill. Rovers won the Connacht Senior League and Connacht Senior Cup with Fagan in charge.
The demise of the Reserves saw an approach for Noel Kennedy and he took over as manager of the Sligo/ Leitrim, where he has remained to date.
"Noel gave me the dreaded vote of confidence recently, so I must be doing something right," he said.
Fagan has brought Sligo/ Leitrim to an Oscar Traynor quarter-final and they play the Donegal League on Sunday next as they bid to confirm their place in the latter stages of this year's competition.
As he looks back on life in the League of Ireland, he says the 'divers' in the game that now seem to go down at the nearest touch anger him.
"In my day, you wouldn't let and opponent know he had hurt you. You just got up and got on with it. You wouldn't give them the satisfaction of knowing you had taken a knock. Nowadays, players are trying to get others booked or sent off and that is frustrating," he declared.
Elsewhere, he feels the advent of summer soccer is not as attractive as those who promote it would maintain.
"My view is that we spent years and years trying to get floodlights and now when we have them we decide to play during the summer. There is so much to do during the summer months, I feel we should have left things as they were," he said.
Fagan says he thoroughly enjoyed his career and held his own with the best in the league.
"I tried to ensure that my opponents would say they had a hard game against me rather than the other way around.
"Only for the likes of Jamsie Tiernan, however, I would not have played for as long as I did. He was a fantastic man and kept me going. He put me back in the game on many occasions," he said.
Fago hopes that young players will continue to get- and take-the chance to play at the highest level as he did with distinction.
In these days of the 'cheque-book charlies', the jersey kissing mercenaries whose loyalty to a club often depends on the contribution it makes to their bulging bank balances, his worth? ........simply priceless.