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Rovers unyielding belief that anything is possible keeps the Euro dream alive

Rovers unyielding belief that anything is possible keeps the Euro dream alive

Sligo Rovers have never been short of ambition. When days are dark, they look for the stars. They seek rainbows when it rains. Always look on the bright side. It’s not love of glory that motivates them, it’s the glory of love – the enduring love between club and community.

This is what has enabled them to push the boundaries of possibility for more than nine decades, surviving in the face of often overwhelming odds, looking adversity square in the face and defiantly refusing to surrender.

They’ve turned audacity into an art form. What other modest club on the western outpost of Europe would dare seek the services of one of the world’s greatest players and succeed in their mission? That’s exactly what Sligo Rovers achieved when they persuaded the legendary England and Everton striker, Dixie Dean, to join them in 1939. The move proved such an iconic part of the club’s history that more than eighty years later, there are still strong ties between Sligo Rovers and Dean’s family in Liverpool.

The Dixie Dean story is typical of Rovers’ unyielding belief that anything is possible. It’s a virtue that has carried the club and its supporters to places of extreme fulfilment. Sure there’s been despair and disappointment along the way, joyless years when the lights dimmed and the skies darkened, but the sparkle never diminished and the barren spells only served to enrich and illuminate the good times.

For Rovers fans, there’s nothing to compare with the giddy excitement of a big game at the Showgrounds or the almost tribal feeling of watching misty eyed from afar as the Bit O Red carry the hopes of a town and county into fevered battle.

In that context, this season has been a weird, surreal and toxic cocktail of isolation and bewilderment – a ghostly and empty Showgrounds, stripped of its gladiators and warriors, bearing soulless testament to a spiteful pandemic which has robbed us of our natural inclination to engagement and communal celebration.

The virus was still in the early stages of its merciless onslaught when the League of Ireland was brought to an abrupt halt last March. Already in the danger zone with no points on the clock after four matches, Rovers fate and their fans’ faith appeared bound by a mutual dread of a calamitous future.

Starved of the lifeblood of revenue through the turnstiles and promotional streams of income from associated match day activities, the club had little option but to reach out to their fan base in their hour of need.

With the pandemic affecting all walks of life and seriously impacting the resources of individuals, families and the business community, there could hardly have been a more unfavourable climate to launch a fund-raising project.

As a community club, Rovers were only too well aware that there were many demands on a hard-pressed public and accordingly were conservative in their estimate of the support which might be forthcoming.

But they needn’t have worried. Even by the standards of the long-standing goodwill afforded to the club by the community, the response to the BORST’S fund was awesome, if not purely mind-boggling. By the time the fund closed, almost Eighty Five Thousand Euro had been pledged by supporters from near and far, a spectacular demonstration of the love and devotion for Sligo Rovers, not only in the local region but throughout the whole country and further afield.

The hope was that this phenomenal outpouring of loyalty would draw a parallel response from manager Liam Buckley and the players, that somehow the squad could draw on the emotional support from the community and garner sufficient points over a shortened season to avoid the relegation trap door.

That was the overriding aspiration when action resumed in July. Nobody dared entertain the notion of anything other than a survival dogfight.

But as we’ve established already, Sligo Rovers have always believe that anything is possible.

Starting with an unexpected 2-0 win over Derry City at the Brandywell, Rovers rejuvenated squad set off on a blistering run of form, quickly digging themselves out of trouble at the wrong end of the table and putting themselves on course for a respectable finish.

But, despite defeats to strugglers Cork City and Shelbourne, it turned out even better than that and the prospect of a place in European football, a scenario which was regarded as no more than a groundless pipedream just a few months previously, was now a realistic target.

Rovers took a step closer to the Euro dream with a thoroughly convincing 2-0 win over Dundalk on the last day of the League campaign. The result and the manner in which it was achieved was a fitting reward for the selfless dedication of the loyal fan base, the Trojan work off the field by the Board of Management and its Chairman, Tommy Higgins, tireless CEO, Colin Feehily, the incredible efforts of the BORST group and the heroics of the manager and the players over the course of what was one of the most demanding seasons in the club’s history.

There is a pathway now to the Europa League next season. Rovers will claim a place in the lucrative competition if Athlone Town or Derry City don’t win the FAI Cup.

Now who would have thought that was possible when the League resumed in July?

Well maybe Rovers fans might have. Because they always look for rainbows when it rains.

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And that’s the Truce……….

Last Game Miltown

The day age-old rivals found common cause on a Dublin soccer pitch

By Leo Gray

There is hardly a more intense rivalry in Irish soccer than that which exists between supporters of Sligo Rovers and Shamrock Rovers. Depending on circumstances, the differences between the two sets of fanatical fans has ranged from witty and amusing banter to bitter and angry exchanges.

But, like all tribal encounters, there were times when compromise mattered more than confrontation, where a genuine concern for the common good and a shared love of League of Ireland soccer conquered age-old resentment and deep-rooted hostilities.

The most famous truce between the two groups came during the FAI Cup campaign of 1987 when supporters of both clubs came together in an unlikely show of solidarity against plans to sell Shamrock Rovers iconic home ground, Glenmalure Park in Milltown.

In their hour of need, the Hoops reached out far and wide for support for their campaign to save their treasured home – even Paul Heaton, the lead singer with world famous super group, the Housemartins, lent his name to the effort, and financial assistance came from as far away as Australia.

But perhaps the greatest show of resistance came from within the League of Ireland community and, specifically, from the genuine support of Sligo Rovers fan base.

To put the Sligo fans’ gesture into context, it is important to note that there was never much love lost between the two sets of supporters and the rivalry between the clubs reached new heights following the 1978 FAI Cup final when a hotly disputed penalty helped the Dublin club snatch a highly controversial victory over the Bit O Red.

The passing seasons only served to intensify the sense of injustice and when the sides were drawn against each other in the semi-final of the FAI Cup in 1987, there were many hardened Sligo fans who saw this as a timely opportunity to gain revenge for all the wrongs they had suffered nine years previously.

The semi-final was scheduled as a two-legged contest that season. The first instalment at the Showgrounds ended in a tense scoreless draw so it was all to play for in the second leg at Milltown on April 12th.

In Sligo, the focus was exclusively on getting the required result in the second game but the priorities were slightly more complex for the Hoops.

Yes, they were determined to get to the final, but the game was likely to be the last ever match at the storied Milltown stadium and the growing protests surrounding plans to sell the ground catapulted the fixture into national headlines, and much of the coverage had more to do with off-the-pitch issues rather than the outcome of the match.

A protest group, KRAM (Keep Rovers At Milltown) had gained massive profile, nationally and internationally, and were determined to make one last show of strength at the semi-final encounter.

Nobody was quite sure what would transpire by way of protest but, in any event, it didn’t deter the loyal Red Army from travelling in huge numbers for the game, helping to swell the attendance to a capacity 6,000.

Tony O’Kelly, a muscular and hard-working centre-forward, headed home from Tony Fagan’s measured free kick to give Sligo Rovers the lead early on.  However, Shams equalised through Mick Byrne soon afterwards and the scene was set for a compelling second half.

But as soon as the players left the field at the interval, the mood on the terraces, which had been carnival-like on a warm Spring afternoon, suddenly became dark and threatening.

Hundreds of Shamrock Rovers fans stormed on to the pitch, congregating in the centre-circle, and for a brief moment it looked as if it would all boil over. But the protestors were driven by a genuine desire to highlight their disgust at the proposed sale of their beloved ground rather than any violent intent. As they began a sit-down protest, there was sudden movement on the terrace populated by Sligo Rovers supporters.

First a trickle, then a steady flow of red and white clad fans climbed over the perimeter fence and made their way across the pitch to join the Shams supporters.

Within minutes, there were hundreds of Sligo fans on the pitch and many of those watching the unfolding drama feared something sinister was afoot.

But they needn’t have worried. The visiting fans, themselves well accustomed to facing adversity, found common cause with their Dublin counterparts, and far from wanting to engage in any show of unruly behaviour, were motivated only by a determination to lend added substance to the protest.

For once, the colour of the shirt you wore, or the accent with which you spoke, didn’t matter. This was a united outpouring of emotion, an unprecedented act of solidarity involving two tribes of committed, loyal football fans, bonded together by a common love of football.

The protest only ended when Shamrock Rovers player-manager, Dermot Keely, came out to speak to the fans, persuading them to return to the terraces and let the second half commence.

After a ten minute delay, the action resumed on the pitch but the deadlock remained unbroken and a third game was required to settle the issue.

The teams lined out as follows in the last match at Glenmalure Park:

Shamrock Rovers: J Byrne, Kenny, Eccles, Keely, Brady, Murphy, P Byrne, Dignam, Neville, Larkin, M Byrne.

Sligo Rovers: Davis, O’Connell, Spring, Chubb, Scanlon, Fagan, Burke, Bayly, Savage, McLoughlin, O’Kelly.

The following day, the national papers gave front page coverage to the protest and the Irish Times even suggested that the last match at Milltown demanded the presence of the “Distant Drums”, Shamrock Rovers great Dublin rivals who had recently gone out of football, rather than Sligo Rovers.

I felt this amounted to a bit of an insult to Sligo Rovers and wrote a piece in the next edition of The Sligo Champion taking the Irish Times to task. I argued that no team in Ireland knew more about the struggle for survival or the importance of securing the future of their own ground than Sligo Rovers. And, as such, there were no more appropriate opponents for Shams in their last match at Milltown than Sligo Rovers.

The late Sean Kilfeather, a proud Sligoman who worked as a sports journalist with the Irish Times, told me later he cut out my piece from the Champion and pinned it to the desk of the paper’s soccer correspondent.

So how did the Milltown saga end? The Kilcoyne family, who owned Shamrock Rovers, sold the ground for property development for a reported 950,000 euro and a housing estate now stands on the site of the former soccer stadium.

The semi-final was eventually decided in a third match at the Showgrounds. Noel Larkin scored the winner for the Hoops in the last minute and the Dublin club went on to win the Cup, defeating Dundalk in the final.

The third instalment of the semi-final was noteworthy for another reason as it brought the curtain down on Tony Fagan’s long and illustrious career with the Bit O Red.

Meanwhile, the fierce rivalry between Sligo Rovers and Shamrock Rovers is as strong, if not stronger, than ever.  But that sunny afternoon in April, 1987 when the two tribes called a temporary truce remains a significant chapter in the history of both clubs.

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League Cup success paved the way for most glorious chapter in club’s history

A bumper sporting week-end, proclaimed the banner across the top of the new-look Sligo Champion. The date was September 22nd, 2010. After 174 years as a broadsheet newspaper, the Champion was wearing new clothes, all modern and glossy and pristine in its first edition as a compact (tabloid) format.

The lead story concerned ongoing local debate over proposals for a new bridge across the Garavogue at Doorly Park. Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, still embroiled in national controversy after a catastrophic early morning radio interview days earlier, urged local councillors to reinstate the Bridge project in the Sligo Development Plan.

Sports fans were more likely to be drawn to previews of the forthcoming week-end action, however, as the Champion afforded generous coverage to the two big events taking place over the coming days, the GAA county final between Tourlestrane and Eastern Harps and the EA Sports Cup final between Sligo Rovers and Monaghan United at the Showgrounds, a tie which offered the tantalising prospect of a national trophy for the Bit O Red.

Sligo is unique in terms of sporting allegiance – at least that’s my contention. There are, of course, many people who give their preference to either soccer or Gaelic games and who wouldn’t entertain the notion of supporting both codes. But there are a far greater number of followers who are avid fans of Sligo Rovers and the Gaelic football and hurling teams at club and inter-county level. I don’t think such sporting ecumenism is as strong in other counties. I might be wrong but that’s the impression I have after four decades reporting on both codes in the county.

Anyway, supporters were spared the agonising choice of which of the games to attend on that eventful week-end ten years ago because as luck would have it, the League Cup final was scheduled for Saturday, September 25th, with the county final taking place the following day.

It was Rovers first appearance in the final of the League Cup since they won the trophy for the first time in their history in 1998. More on that anon.

Rovers had spent a lot of time in the backwaters of Irish soccer in the intervening years but there was a growing sense of optimism among their dedicated fan base that better times lay ahead.

The arrival of Paul Cook as manager in 2008 sparked something of a revival and slowly but surely the Red Army was preparing to go to war with the big guns again.

But the general view was that some silverware was required to confirm that there was real substance to the revolution and that this wasn’t just another false dawn.

That was why the League Cup campaign was seen as a vital stepping stone to potentially more prosperous times. And though few of us could have anticipated the scale of what was to unfold in the following years, there was a general acceptance that success in the League Cup would mark an important breakthrough for the Bit O Red after so many barren years in the wilderness.

A routine 6-0 victory over Letterkenny Rovers in the second round of the competition (Rovers had received a bye in round one) offered an encouraging start to the campaign and when Rovers hammered St. Pat’s 4-1 in the quarter-finals, people began to sit up and take notice.

Old rivals, Shamrock Rovers, provided the opposition in the semi-final. There is never any quarter asked or given in these contests and another absorbing encounter ensued on this occasion with the Bit O Red gaining the upper hand 2-1,, thanks to two Padraig Amond goals.

And so the scene was set for a final showdown with first division outfit, Monaghan United.

The Showgrounds was nominated as the venue for the decider and a crowd of around 3,000 turned up in the hope of witnessing another piece of soccer history at the famous old ground.

Rovers were red-hot favourites, especially as they had beaten Monaghan 3-0 in the FAI Cup the previous week, but nothing is ever straight forward in Cup finals and the Ulster side, to their credit, put up a battling performance with Brian Gartland, later to become a driving force in the all-conquering Dundalk squad, a commanding figure in an uncompromising defence.

As it turned out, a splendidly-taken 14th minute goal by Matthew Blinkhorn was sufficient to secure the trophy for Rovers. It proved to be the opening chapter in a glorious period in the club’s history, paving the way for FAI Cup glory in 2010, 2011 and 2013, the League Championship in 2012 and the Setanta Cup in 2014.

The team which fashioned that breakthrough success ten years ago was: Kelly, Keane, Peers, Lauchlan, Davoren, Doyle, Russell, Ryan, Boco, Ndo, Blinkhorn. Sub: McCabe for Russell.

Rovers first won the League Cup in 1998, with former Manchester City star, Nickey Reid, as their player-manager. They beat Shels in a two-legged decider. Neil Ogden scored the only goal of the game in the first leg at the Showgrounds and a scoreless draw in the second leg at Tolka Park ensured the trophy was heading West.

Rovers lined out as follows in the second leg: Broujos, Morgan, Cobbesson, Hutchison, Reid, Birks, Moran, Thew, Jones, Ogden, Flannery. Subs: Southworth and O’Grady.

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A Bit O Red; A Bit of Black and White

There was a lively and entertaining bit of banter on social media recently regarding players who have represented Sligo Rovers in the League of Ireland and the Sligo GAA team at senior level in National League and Championship football.

In these days of ecumenical sporting brother and sisterhood, it isn’t at all uncommon for talented players to participate in both codes but there was a time when a crossover between the two games was seen as an act of unforgiveable treason.

Indeed, it was actually outlawed in the rules of the GAA for decades, so strictly enforced that anybody engaged in soccer, even at a peripheral level, was barred from attending a Gaelic match, never mind playing the national game.

Thankfully, a more liberal attitude within the GAA brought some sweeping changes to age-old divisions and the removal of the infamous ban, Rule 27, in 1971 paved the way for soccer players to participate in Gaelic Games if they so wished.

And it was two Sligo Rovers players who were the first in the country to br the mould.

David Pugh and the late Gerry Mitchell earned an indelible place in Irish sporting folklore when they became the first established League of Ireland players to play senior inter-county football. It was a real breakthrough moment in our sporting and social mindset and was probably never fully recognised as the enormous shift in our national culture that it was.

Given all that had gone before in terms of the hostility and historical differences between the two games, it was a truly groundbreaking development, confirming the all-embracing power of sport to unite rather than divide.

The inclusion of Pugh and Mitchell in Sligo’s GAA squad for the 1971 Connacht Championship was laced with irony, however, as Sligo had been one of only two counties (Antrim was the other) which opposed the removal of the ban.

Once the controversial Rule 27 was consigned to the scrapheap, Sligo embraced the new regulations enthusiastically and the recruitment of the Rovers players proved a shrewd move as Pugh and Mitchell

 both played vital roles in a memorable Championship campaign. (Tony Fagan was also included in the GAA panel that Summer but didn’t get a starting place on the team)

Pugh and Mitchell both impressed in Sligo’s opening Championship game against Roscommon. It was, incidentally, the first Championship game played at the recently opened Hyde Park. As was usually the case, Sligo started as underdogs but defied the odds to fashion a thoroughly deserved 0-10 to 1-5 win.

The fact that two soccer players engaged in a Gaelic football match at a ground named in honour of Ireland’s first President, Douglas Hyde, was highly appropriate too.

Shortly after his inauguration in 1938, President Hyde attended a soccer international between Ireland and Poland at Dalymount Park and as a consequence was swiftly removed from his position as Patron of the GAA, a role he had held since 1902.

The 1971 Connacht final between Sligo and Galway at McHale Park turned out to be a gripping encounter with a last minute point from a free by the legendary Mickey Kearins earning the Yeats County a thrilling draw. The replay at the same venue was another cracking game but ended in heartbreak for Sligo as Galway shaded it by a single point, 1-17 to 3-10. Pugh and Mitchell featured prominently in both games.

The soccer stars also featured in Sligo’s Championship season in 1972, with Pugh contributing 2-3 and Mitchell a goal in a facile win over Leitrim in the opening round at Markievicz Park. However, the Yeats County’s hopes of glory were dashed by Mayo in the semi-final, although it needed a replay to decide the outcome.

Incidentally, the goalkeeper on that great Sligo team was Tommy Cummins, who would later go on to play for Rovers in the League of Ireland, and whose family have been loyal and selfless servants to the Bit O Red for generations.

If their contribution to Sligo’s GAA cause was noteworthy in a historical context, Pugh and Mitchell were unquestionably two of Sligo Rovers greatest servants.

Both played on the iconic Rovers team which reached the FAI Cup final in 1970 – the club’s first final in 30 years – and both served in managerial roles at different periods in the 1970s and 1980s

Gerry Mitchell was Rovers manager when the Bit O Red played Shamrock Rovers in the semi-final of the FAI Cup on April 12th 1987. It was the last ever game at Miltown. The game, which was the second leg of a two-legged tie, finished 1-1 with Tony O’Kelly on target for the Bit O Red. As the first game at the Showgrounds had been a scoreless draw, a third game was required. It took place at the Showgrounds on April 15th and ended in a 1-0 win for Shams. That match marked Tony Fagan’s last appearance for Rovers.

Given that next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the removal of the contentious ban from the GAA rule book and that it was two proud Sligomen who were the first in the country to cross the threshold from soccer into senior Gaelic football, wouldn’t it be nice if their groundbreaking move was officially honoured in some way by the two sporting bodies.?

By Leo Gray

There was a lively and entertaining bit of banter on social media recently regarding players who have represented Sligo Rovers in the League of Ireland and the Sligo GAA team at senior level in National League and Championship football.

In these days of ecumenical sporting brother and sisterhood, it isn’t at all uncommon for talented players to participate in both codes but there was a time when a crossover between the two games was seen as an act of unforgiveable treason.

Indeed, it was actually outlawed in the rules of the GAA for decades, so strictly enforced that anybody engaged in soccer, even at a peripheral level, was barred from attending a Gaelic match, never mind playing the national game.

Thankfully, a more liberal attitude within the GAA brought some sweeping changes to age-old divisions and the removal of the infamous ban, Rule 27, in 1971 paved the way for soccer players to participate in Gaelic Games if they so wished.

And it was two Sligo Rovers players who were the first in the country to br the mould.

David Pugh and the late Gerry Mitchell earned an indelible place in Irish sporting folklore when they became the first established League of Ireland players to play senior inter-county football. It was a real breakthrough moment in our sporting and social mindset and was probably never fully recognised as the enormous shift in our national culture that it was.

Given all that had gone before in terms of the hostility and historical differences between the two games, it was a truly groundbreaking development, confirming the all-embracing power of sport to unite rather than divide.

The inclusion of Pugh and Mitchell in Sligo’s GAA squad for the 1971 Connacht Championship was laced with irony, however, as Sligo had been one of only two counties (Antrim was the other) which opposed the removal of the ban.

Once the controversial Rule 27 was consigned to the scrapheap, Sligo embraced the new regulations enthusiastically and the recruitment of the Rovers players proved a shrewd move as Pugh and Mitchell

 both played vital roles in a memorable Championship campaign. (Tony Fagan was also included in the GAA panel that Summer but didn’t get a starting place on the team)

Pugh and Mitchell both impressed in Sligo’s opening Championship game against Roscommon. It was, incidentally, the first Championship game played at the recently opened Hyde Park. As was usually the case, Sligo started as underdogs but defied the odds to fashion a thoroughly deserved 0-10 to 1-5 win.

The fact that two soccer players engaged in a Gaelic football match at a ground named in honour of Ireland’s first President, Douglas Hyde, was highly appropriate too.

Shortly after his inauguration in 1938, President Hyde attended a soccer international between Ireland and Poland at Dalymount Park and as a consequence was swiftly removed from his position as Patron of the GAA, a role he had held since 1902.

The 1971 Connacht final between Sligo and Galway at McHale Park turned out to be a gripping encounter with a last minute point from a free by the legendary Mickey Kearins earning the Yeats County a thrilling draw. The replay at the same venue was another cracking game but ended in heartbreak for Sligo as Galway shaded it by a single point, 1-17 to 3-10. Pugh and Mitchell featured prominently in both games.

The soccer stars also featured in Sligo’s Championship season in 1972, with Pugh contributing 2-3 and Mitchell a goal in a facile win over Leitrim in the opening round at Markievicz Park. However, the Yeats County’s hopes of glory were dashed by Mayo in the semi-final, although it needed a replay to decide the outcome.

Incidentally, the goalkeeper on that great Sligo team was Tommy Cummins, who would later go on to play for Rovers in the League of Ireland, and whose family have been loyal and selfless servants to the Bit O Red for generations.

If their contribution to Sligo’s GAA cause was noteworthy in a historical context, Pugh and Mitchell were unquestionably two of Sligo Rovers greatest servants.

Both played on the iconic Rovers team which reached the FAI Cup final in 1970 – the club’s first final in 30 years – and both served in managerial roles at different periods in the 1970s and 1980s

Gerry Mitchell was Rovers manager when the Bit O Red played Shamrock Rovers in the semi-final of the FAI Cup on April 12th 1987. It was the last ever game at Miltown. The game, which was the second leg of a two-legged tie, finished 1-1 with Tony O’Kelly on target for the Bit O Red. As the first game at the Showgrounds had been a scoreless draw, a third game was required. It took place at the Showgrounds on April 15th and ended in a 1-0 win for Shams. That match marked Tony Fagan’s last appearance for Rovers.

Given that next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the removal of the contentious ban from the GAA rule book and that it was two proud Sligomen who were the first in the country to cross the threshold from soccer into senior Gaelic football, wouldn’t it be nice if their groundbreaking move was officially honoured in some way by the two sporting bodies.?