Thursday 22 February 2018

Tears of joy as plucky Bit O'Red end 35-year wait

Sligo Rovers 3
St Patrick's Ath 2

Sligo Rovers manager Ian Baraclough celebrates with Mark Quigley in their team dressing rooom after winning the Airtricity League Premier Division title. Photo: Sportsfile
Sligo Rovers manager Ian Baraclough celebrates with Mark Quigley in their team dressing rooom after winning the Airtricity League Premier Division title. Photo: Sportsfile

Cian O'Connell

A wild and wonderful afternoon eventually ended with Sligo Rovers being crowned League of Ireland champions for the first time in 35 years.

A gripping game, sprinkled with class, commitment and controversy, unfolded in front of 5,621 engrossed spectators, but the Bit O'Red brigade were celebrating at the finish.

Unfortunately, in these exacting economic times, doubt is never far away from delight following most domestic triumphs.

As a raucous Showgrounds crowd saluted Sligo's remarkable achievement, the great uncertainties surrounding the sport in this country were being discussed in the tunnel.

Interested

Former Sligo boss Paul Cook is rumoured to be extremely interested in bringing a few of his ex-players over to Accrington Stanley and skipper Danny Ventre admitted that no long-term decisions have been taken just yet by a string of experienced squad members.

Scouser Ventre, the heartbeat of this Sligo side, had talks about a new contract during the summer, but decided to wait until the conclusion of the campaign for further meetings.

When asked whether anybody would want to leave now, Ventre replied: "I'm not so sure, I haven't spoken to the lads about staying or going.

"There are a lot of home birds here -- Jason McGuinness and Mark Quigley among them. I hope everyone does stay, but I couldn't say, it's down to the lads.

"This club shouldn't be waiting 35 years to win a league. Now we should be looking to keep the players for next year. We shouldn't be waiting another 35 years for the next one."

It was a breathtaking contest as Sligo let a two-goal advantage slip, but recovered late on as Ian Baraclough's stunning first season in charge was decorated with a title party.

The occasion had everything according to Baraclough.

"It did. You think you're in control at half-time. Your team talk is easy, you just keep it going and then Pat's score within five minutes.

"Okay, bit of a setback, but we'll be okay, then all of a sudden they score again in another five minutes and all of a sudden lads are doing things that don't come natural to them.

"It took a huge effort to get back up the field because we were camped in at that stage."

Raffaele Cretaro's brace of goals on 21 and 24 minutes were significant, as the only local in the starting XI contributed handsomely to Sligo's blistering start. "To pop up with two goals in the game that won us the league -- it's the stuff dreams are made of. It's something I can't describe," said Cretaro, who turns 31 today.

Despite being shaky initially, St Patrick's Athletic's passing pedigree was evident after the restart. Christy Fagan and a deflected Chris Forrester effort brought them level.

Sligo were under duress, but then, with 90 seconds remaining, they were awarded a disputed penalty when Conor Kenna was harshly deemed to have handled a Gavin Peers attempt.

As Mark Quigley waited patiently to take the spot kick, what was occupying Baraclough's mind?

"I don't know how I was feeling to be honest. I was thinking of several scenarios, if we scored to make sure we got back and were solid. If we didn't score, God knows."

Quigley was ice-cool earning the points and the glory.

A lengthy debate involving Ventre and O'Connor saw them red-carded as a mad match was decided by Quigley's slice of composure.

The scenes were jubilant and with tears filling his eyes, Baraclough spoke about a gorgeous embrace with his 78-year-old father.

"My dad came over for his first game of the season. To go up the stairs and give him a hug meant so much to me. I lost my mum when I was eight and he brought up five boys. To give him something like that, there was no feeling like it.

"He had a hard life taking on jobs to keep me in football boots and it just means a massive amount. He's fit as a fiddle, a few pints of Guinness will help him."

Liam Buckley didn't want to dwell on what didn't go the visitors' way.

"It is over the whole season. It would have been great for us and for the league if it went on for another couple of weeks. It is over, it is done and dusted as far as we are concerned."

Baraclough reckons that Sligo's pluck and perseverance has been crucial to their successful campaign. "We showed character when the chips were down. The legs were gone at the end and credit to Pat's for pushing us so hard.

"To get out of the game with three points and the title epitomises what we were about this season.

"Whenever we've had our backs to the wall, we've dug in. To lose one game all season is a tremendous record and I'd like to keep it intact over the final two games."

Sligo Rovers -- Rogers; Henderson (Cawley, 54), Peers, McGuinness, Gaynor; Lynch, Ventre, Ndo (Buchanan, 84); Millien (Dillon, 76), Quigley, Cretaro.

St Patrick's Athletic -- Murphy; O'Brien, Kenna, Browne, Bermingham; Bolger (Faherty, 46), Chambers (Russell, 70), Carroll; O'Connor, Fagan, Forrester (Flood, 80).

Ref -- D Hancock (Dublin)

Irish Independent

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