When the final whistle blew and the fans packed into The Showgrounds rushed on to the pitch to celebrate Sligo Rovers’ first league title since 1977, it felt like the centre of the universe was a small town on the north-west coast.
A dream for so many in an area with a population of around 20,000 had been realised after what must have seemed an eternity. The wild celebrations were entirely justified. The Bit O’Red were, for just the third time in their history, kings of Irish football.
The awarding of a contentious last-minute penalty which was, it’s important not to forget, terribly cruel on St Pat’s, wasn’t perhaps the greatest way to clinch the title but the man who put it away, Mark Quigley, certainly deserved the glory.
Still, that probably didn’t register with the disbelieving players and supporters at full-time, as fans invaded the pitch to hold aloft their heroes.
This season, for the most part, hasn’t been one of drama. Instead, it has been straightforward and hassle free.
When Ian Baraclough came in as manager in the 11th hour before the season kicked off — he had just three days to prepare before their first league game — word was that Paul Cook’s departure had left them in disarray.
That couldn’t have been further from the truth. Sligo started the campaign in rampant fashion, securing 13 of the first 15 points available.
A triumphant Baraclough, tears in his eyes at the end on Saturday, will never be forgotten by the people of Sligo. Statues have been erected of people for far less than the impact he has had on the town.
Emotions, as you would expect, were running high at full-time. The most coherent thing skipper Danny Ventre could say at full-time was that he couldn’t put it into words.
Like many of those players from across the water before him, he is now an honorary Sligo man.
Indeed every player that has contributed to this glorious campaign, from local legend Rafaelle Cretaro to the exuberant Haitian, Pascal Millien, will be immortalised in the town for the rest of their days.
Most of all though, this will have tasted sweetest for those behind the scenes. The volunteers who, as a labour of love and seeking no financial reward, run the club.
We hear stories of financial mismanagement far too often in the league but Sligo have gone about their business in the right manner, making steady progress since they were promoted back to the top tier in 2005.
Now, they have reached the Holy Grail of the domestic game for just the third time in 78 years.
Rovers are not like any other in the League of Ireland. It’s a special club, one that was in the doldrums for so long but will rightly revel in this success for weeks to come.
They are unique in that they are at the centre of their community. People in the town live for their team and that, unfortunately, can’t be said for many other clubs around the country.
To put it all into context, Leo Grey, a journalist with the Sligo Champion who covered the title win in 1977, says the Bit O’Red are the closest example to a GAA club in how they are so deeply integrated in the area.
“It’s like your typical rural GAA club because it means so much to the locals. It’s unique. The celebrations will be wild because, when you consider the size of the town, the support base is huge. The place will go crazy.”
That it was a garrison town made Sligo a footballing hotbed since the club’s inception in 1928 — they didn’t join the league until 1934 — but their appeal extends far beyond that. Grey explained: “The extraordinary thing about the club is the number of players that have come from England, signed for Rovers for a year and have never left. That shows you the magnetic appeal of the town. It’s really unlike any other.”
Take Chris Rutherford as a perfect example, the Scouser who scored in the title-deciding game in 1977. He is now as Sligo as the Garavogue, but when he first moved to the town in 1975, on a free transfer from Cardiff City, he had never heard of the place. Thirty-seven years on, he has never left and has three children with his wife Bernadette.
“The club has a massive role locally and it’s brilliant that it’s driven by the fans,” he says. “There must be two to three hundred volunteers there. It’s only a small town but the crowds are so good. I had many opportunities to leave but I loved the place so much, I have never wanted to go.”
As for comparing the celebrations between ’77 and 2012: “I was just doing my job by scoring that goal, it was what I was being paid for but I was amazed by the supporters’ response. It will be just as good this time, if not better.”
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