Paul Fielding, the man who ended Rovers' Cup Famine
In the latest of his series of acticles to mark Sligo Rovers' 75th anniversary, Michael Moran talks to Paul Fielding who guided Rovers to their historic FAI Cup success in 1983 and also won a League Campionship Medal with the Club in 1977.
>In the latest of his series of acticles to mark Sligo Rovers' 75th anniversary, Michael Moran talks to Paul Fielding who guided Rovers to their historic FAI Cup success in 1983 and also won a League Campionship Medal with the Club in 1977.
WHEN Sligo Rovers appointed a "somewhat surprised" Paul Fielding as their youngest ever manager in the summer of 1982, no one could have predicted that the former Rochdale player was about to change the course of history.
As so often in the past, the prospect of an extended F.A.I. Cup campaign offered a glimmer of hope in a season that had produced little comfort in the league and saw Rovers eventually finish in the bottom four.
The following April, Sligo and its soccer mad public were celebrating the club's first ever F.A.I. Cup victory to end a lifetime of heartache as Fielding guided his collection of English imports, 'adopted Sligonians' and locals to a memorable 2-1 win over Bohemians in Dalymount Park.
"It was an incredible experience and one that I will remember forever. At first, it was all a bit of a daze, but it gradually began to sink in that we had achieved something never before accomplished by Sligo Rovers.
"There had been so many bitter disappointments in the past and it was, without doubt, something very, very special for all of us," Fielding acknowledged.
Rochdale-born Fielding had taken over in the Showgrounds hot-seat from Patsy McGowan, who had returned to Finn Harps, having managed Rovers to a fifth place finish the previous season.
McGowan also brought a number of Rovers players with him to Ballybofey, with the result that Fielding had to assemble a largely new-look squad for the 1982-'83 campaign.
After the applicants for the job were narrowed down to four, the member of Billy Sinclair's 1977 League Championship winning team, found himself preparing for his managerial debut.
"I was always interested in the coaching aspect of the game and had received my coaching badges. When the Rovers job came up, I applied more to show that interest than anything else and though somewhat surprised when I actually got the job, I was prepared to do it and was confident in my own ability to succeed," Fielding explained.
Many of his squad have since commented that Fielding was a good manager and that results didn't mirror the talent in the side.
"I had an idea of what I wanted to do at the club. It was something like Billy Sinclair had done, when he first came. I wanted to have a professional set-up as much as possible and the task was to put a team together from the players who were still at the Showgrounds and by making a number of cross-channel signings," he said.
Fielding recruited goalkeeper Colin Oakley from Sheffield United, striker Andy Elliott and Keith Parkinson from Manchester City, Mick Graham from Bolton, while Graham Fox-another ex-member of the '77 squad-had come back from Ballymena.
"We finished well down the league, but I don't think that was a true reflection of the team," he maintains.
When the draw for the first round of the F.A.I. Cup was made, Rovers were facing into an away game against Home Farm on February 5th and it was an optimistic Fielding who was looking ahead.
" With the team we had, I felt we had enough character to get through. The cup run was short enough in that you only needed to win four games to lift the trophy and I was certainly confident we could do that.
"Andy Elliott's penalty got us through the first round and when we beat Shamrock Rovers at the Showgrounds, I think we really started to believe in ourselves and the momentum was up," Fielding says.
"We were on a roll, but the matches against Cobh Ramblers in the semi-final were something else. Cobh had been doing well in the cup, though they were then a non-league outfit and in many respects, we were on a hiding to nothing.
"Most people expected us to win, but football doesn't always work out like that," he added.
And, the former Rovers boss noted that the man who saved Rovers cup hopes in the first semi-final at Flower Lodge might well have been on his way out of the Showgrounds.
"The committee were asking me to get rid of Mick Graham. He certainly justified himself with his equaliser in the dying minutes. When I signed him, I had been told that he was tall and could score goals and he didn't let us down on that occasion," Fielding revealed.
The semi-final odyssey was to continue for another three games, gripping the imagination and providing some heart stopping moments, before Rovers eventually overcame the gallant Cobh men to come back from Frank O'Neill's two first-half strikes to win three-two at the Showgrounds.
Fielding was now a week away from Rovers first F.A.I. Cup appearance since the loss to Dundalk in 1981, while memories of a controversial defeat to Shamrock Rovers in the 1978 decider were also flooding back, for more reasons than one!
"There was no contact with Steve Lynex as far as I was concerned. The referee gave the penalty and Shams won the game. That was a bitter blow and very, very disappointing," said the player adjudged by John Carpenter to have fouled Lynex.
He was returning to Dalymount Park as manager of a Rovers cup final team and again he had every hope that the search for success was about to end.
"We had played Bohemians in Dublin a couple of weeks before the Cobh matches and though we did not have a full team and were not at full throttle, we came from two down to draw two-all. (Martin McDonnell and Mick Savage getting the goals.)
"That gave us that little bit of extra confidence and we felt that there would be added pressure on Bohs in that they were at home and were expected by most people outside Sligo to win," Fielding said.
Going into the game, he added that Rovers had no major 'game plan' other than to keep Bohs ace striker, Jackie Jameson, under wraps, while Paul Doolin was also identified as another crucial figure in the Gypsies side.
"Other than that, we did nothing special. I was confident the lads could do it, but we went in a goal down at half-time and had not played that well. The atmosphere was a bit charged at the break and Tony Stenson was getting stitches.
"We knew what we had to do and we were determined to go out and put things right. We got two superb goals and though the last twelve minutes were the longest for everyone involved, Colin Oakley made one important save and we won out in the end.
"It was a fantastic occasion and the homecoming was amazing. I think when we saw the people of Sligo along the streets it brought home to us just what it meant to them and so many people who had supported Sligo Rovers down the years," he went on.
In their subsequent European Cup Winners Cup tie, Rovers were beaten by Valkeakosken of Finland and Fielding's problems continued when a number of players were ruled out through injury. They went twenty-three games without a win, including a humiliating 5-0 defeat by U.C.D. as they surrendered their F.A.I. Cup crown in a first round replay at Belfield.
In March, 1984 it was announced that a five-year plan was being put in place and that only part-time and amateur players would be used under a new wage structure. A youth policy had also been established and with Liam Rooney at the helm, Rovers won the Connacht Youth Cup and lost to Home Farm in an All-Ireland semi-final replay at the Showgrounds.
Fielding had asked for an extension of his contract after Rovers cup win, but his managerial reign came to an end when he was replaced by the late Gerry Mitchell.
"There was all sorts of stuff going on in the background at the time. Some of the players went without wages for a number of weeks and eventually Rovers told me I would not be getting another contract.
"Gerry took over and I played under him for one season. | then took the manager's job at Newcastlewest (then in the League of Ireland) and I enjoyed that. I returned once more to the Showgrounds, again whilst Gerry was still in charge, but eventually called it a day after a season with Finn Harps, as far as senior soccer was concerned," said Fielding.
He later teamed up with local junior side Strand Celtic as player/ manager and brought them to a Bill Monaghan Cup win.
Now resident in Ballina, Paul was Connacht inter-provincial coach last term and also coached the Mayo side in the under-age Kennedy Cup competition.
In the early days, Fielding seemed destined for a long career in English professional football with Rochdale, but circumstances contrived against him and his dreams lay in tatters before he answered Billy Sinclair's call.
Having played for his local Kings Way School, Fielding also lined out for Rochdale Schoolboys and featured alongside Leeds United boss, Peter Reid, for Lancashire Schoolboys.
At that stage he was a promising mid-fielder and he signed as one of only three apprentice professional with Rochdale, aged fifteen.
"Rochdale used to bring the local kids in for coaching and trials. Most of the big clubs around the area like Manchester City and Manchester United were allowed up to fifteen apprentice professionals, whereas Rochdale had only a handful.
"I remember joining with a lad called Kenny Williams, who only played a couple of games, and Charlie Simpson, who also didn't graduate through the ranks," he recalled.
Fielding turned professional at 18, but he had already made his debut a week before his 17th birthday, in a 2-1 televised defeat by Chesterfield.
He went on to play in up to one hundred league and cup games for Rochdale, who were then in the old Third Division. Dick Connor had signed him during his managerial term and Fielding progressed under former Manchester United Youth Team coach, Walter Joyce.
A new Chairman then arrived and with Rochdale now managerless, a group of youth team players were given free transfers, including Fielding.
"I had played in every league game before I left and was doing well at right back. Of course I was devastated to be let go. I wanted to be a professional footballer and it was even harder to take when Rochdale subsequently signed another player for my position," Paul said.
It was now Southport or Sligo for the disillusioned Fielding.
"Southport were in the Fourth Division and they would only give me a three month contract. Gary Hulmes had already signed for Sligo, having been let go by Rochdale and as manager, Billy Sinclair, knew a friend who was familiar with me from Halifax, he telephone me and asked would I come over and try it for a year.
"Though I was still on contract with Southport, Sligo Rovers were willing to pay me as much and the offer of a longer contract proved too strong and I basically jumped at the chance," he explained.
Like many cross-channel signings, Fielding had never heard of Sligo or Sligo Rovers and thought initially that the North West capital was close to Dublin.
"I remember Billy Sinclair picking me up in Belfast and driving me to Sligo. We went through the town and drove past the Showgrounds, before he told me it was the football ground.
"There was sheep on the pitch and it certainly was a new experience for me, but one that I don't regret, even though it was my first time away from home," he said.
Sinclair, a tough trainer and an ambitious manager, had a good panel of players and was building a championship winning squad.
"The likes of Chris Rutherford, Tony Stenson, Graham Fox and Tony Fagan were all in Sligo. Billy had the right blend to succeed and it was great to win the league in 1977.
"We only had a panel of fourteen, but luckily, we stayed relatively free of injuries and once we got into the habit of winning games, it just took off from there. The full-time training helped us and ensured there wasn't much time to get bored.
"We felt we could win every game and of course the last game against Shamrock Rovers when we won the title at the Showgrounds was incredible. The atmosphere was electric, though there were a few nerves, especially when Shamrock Rovers equalised in the second half.
"It was my first experience of winning anything and again it will remain with me as a special memory," Fielding acknowledged.
The European Cup followed and though Rovers were beaten six-nil on aggregate against the mighty Red Star Belgrade, they had held them scoreless for twenty minutes in the away game.
"Again, that was a tremendous occasion. We were playing against some of the top players in Europe at the time," he said.
The Cup Final defeat by Shamrock Rovers followed the next season and when Billy Sinclair left to take up a coaching job with California Sunshine in the U.S., Patsy McGowan took over as manager, following the sacking of Ian McKechnie for a breach of club discipline.
"I can recall reporting for training and there was only Alan Paterson, Gary Hulmes and myself. The full-time set up was more or less gone and I stayed a season under Patsy, but then went to Glenavon, where Billy Sinclair was then manager.
"I came back to the Showgrounds again, but little did I know then that I would end up replacing Patsy as manager," he added.
He also could not have envisaged that he was to succeed where others had failed and write a glorious chapter in the annals of Sligo Rovers.