Friday 20 April 2018

Validation of a wild dream

Baraclough's men take rightful place at top table, writes Eamonn Sweeney

Now that is how you win a league title. The history of Sligo Rovers is founded to such an extent on the ability to overcome adversity that it wasn't surprising to see them put the emotions of their supporters through the wringer at a packed Showgrounds before clinching their first league title in 35 years. Anything else would have been just too easy.

It's been that way all season for Rovers, which is why this title triumph is one of the most remarkable in many years.

Manager Ian Baraclough was given the job just before the season started with barely enough time to memorise the names of his players and serious concerns about whether he'd have enough bodies to fill the bench. The prognosis was that if the Bit O'Red were to challenge for the title everything would have to go right for them.

Instead quite a lot went wrong and they found themselves facing into their showdown with St Pat's without the injured quartet of Alan Keane, Seamus Conneely, Danny North and Iarlaith Davoren.

When third-choice right-back Jeff Henderson limped off early in the second half and shortly afterwards the visitors erased a two-goal deficit, Rovers looked to be on the brink of a very scary precipice. They didn't have to win this game to win the league but a loss against Pat's would have made it very difficult for the leaders to rebound in their tough two final games.

But all season, ever since injury-time goals from Jason McGuinness secured the new champions a draw in their first league game and a win in their first home match, Sligo have played like a team who feel the force of destiny at their backs. And so they mustered one final effort, drawing fuel from an emotion-packed house who willed their team over the line.

Their match-winner was Mark Quigley. Not just for his coolness in converting a penalty after a Gavin Peers header was handled but for the extraordinary run which had created the corner which led to that incident. Hacked at by defenders, Quigley stayed on his feet and created the platform for a moment which sent perhaps the league's most faithful support into ecstacy.

Soccer means more in Sligo than in any other town in the country. And this victory is the validation of the wild dream they have up on the north-west frontier of the League of Ireland; that a town half the size of Dundalk and quarter the size of Galway has a right to a place at the top table.

Quigley was an appropriate match-winner. He is one of a number of players on the Sligo team whose belief is that self-expression is at the heart of the game of football. The flair of the man from Sherriff Street, of Joseph Ndo, of Ross Gaynor and Lee Lynch has been encouraged by Baraclough to an extent which meant that Sligo have sparkled like few teams in League of Ireland history.

But perhaps it's the man who scored the two first-half goals which put Rovers at the gateway of nirvana who sums up just what the club is all about. Rafael Cretaro, the little man from Tubbercurry with the big heart, has been a full-back, a midfielder, a winger and a striker for his home club, he soldiered away when the club were mired in the wasteland of the First Division and days like yesterday seemed like the wildest of fantasies.

If Quigley is a Paul McGee for a new generation, then Cretaro is its Tony Fagan, a man who bleeds red and white and whose heart beats in time to the strains of, 'Na Na Hey Hey Sligo Rovers.'

It couldn't have happened to a more deserving player. It couldn't have happened to a more deserving club.

Sometimes there is nothing more beautiful and just than sport.

Sunday Indo Sport

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