Sligo reach crossroads as cup success whets appetite for more glory
WHERE next for Sligo Rovers? That's the question for all involved with the Bit O'Red as they bask in the afterglow of Sunday's famous FAI Cup win at the Aviva Stadium.
Manager Paul Cook couldn't help but raise the topic after the game. After watching his team perform better than league winners Shamrock Rovers on the big day -- although they needed the penalty shootout heroics of Ciaran Kelly to lift the trophy -- he mused if a title challenge was possible in 2011.
In fact, he wondered if Sligo could have made up the four points that separated third and first place this year if his additions in the July transfer window had arrived at the start of the season.
Of course, that effectively proves why the Hoops deserved to win the league, for they had the strongest squad throughout the campaign and were more consistent from March to November.
But the taste of success has whetted Sligo appetites. They now reach a crossroads that is familiar to many League of Ireland clubs.
Unquestionably, they want to keep this team together and know that if they can add to it, there is a real chance to compete for trophies on a regular basis.
But the issue of cost lingers in the background.
They maintain a full-time set-up at the Showgrounds, but on a rolling basis. With the exception of Alan Keane and John Dillon, the rest of Cook's squad were officially out of contract when Kelly saved the fourth Hoops penalty and the season ended.
The performances from some previously unheralded talents in the final weeks of the campaign will have increased their value.
Benin's Romauld Boco may look abroad again, while Joseph Ndo only ended up at Sligo after an attempted switch to Belgium -- which ended his Bohs career -- fell through last winter.
PFAI Player of the Year Richie Ryan, suspended for Sunday, will have suitors and so will skilful midfielders John Russell and Gary McCabe.
Indeed, the latter won praise from Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni, who expressed the opinion that the superior technical side won out on the day.
With the availability of full-time contracts decreasing in Ireland, it may well be that Sligo are in a good position unless UK offers pop up.
The most likely predators are the team they conquered on Sunday, who are in a decent position to capitalise on the difficulties facing others and mop up available players.
You suspect, though, that the euphoria of cup joy in front of 36,000 spectators -- and the local good will from a frenzied homecoming -- will tempt the authorities at the Connacht club to fight hard and try to push on from here.
Cook, who will also have admirers, gave an insight into his mindset when he said that he expects further battles with Shamrock Rovers in the coming years. Perhaps it's the start of a new rivalry, although the domestic game teaches you never to look too far ahead.
Veteran Sligo midfielder Conor O'Grady, who came off the bench with four minutes left on Sunday and missed a penalty in the shootout, is desperate for the club to seize this moment.
"We're double cup winners this year," he said (after the FAI Cup was added to the EA Sports Cup). "But I believe we should have had the treble. We threw away the league over a period of the year.
"I fully believe we were the best team in the league, but that doesn't do us much good. The best team are Shamrock Rovers because they won the league, but I felt we were the best footballing team.
"Hopefully Paul gets the backing of the club now and we will be there or thereabouts next year."