Sligo Rovers are within just 90 minutes of ending a 35 year wait for league glory as they could secure the Airtricity Premier League title on Saturday afternoon (ko 3.45pm) when they host their nearest challengers St Patrick’s Athletic.
A capacity crowd is expected in The Showgrounds and with the game also scheduled to be broadcast live on RTE excitement levels are growing in Sligo but there is also an awareness that the title has not yet been won.
To date more than 4,000 tickets (including season ticket holders) have been snapped up for what could be an historic day and anybody hoping to be in attendance is encouraged to get their ticket from The Showgrounds as soon as possible.
While it could be a day to remember for Rovers, the champagne is not yet on ice as should they slip to only their second league defeat of the season St Pat’s would close the gap at the top to just three points and with the Bit O’Red’s final games seeing them travel to third placed Drogheda United and then hosting Shamrock Rovers, the long wait could become a real test of endurance for the Sligo Rovers faithful.
Last week’s draw in Turner’s Cross against Cork City, which saw a crowd in the region of 500 make the long journey south saw Rovers suffer another injury blow as Seamus Conneely, who has been so impressive since arriving from Sheffield United in July was forced to withdraw from the action shortly before half-time. Should he be unavailable for Saturday’s all-important game he will join the other walking wounded in the squad - Danny North, Alan Keane and Iarfhlaith Davoren.
Both sets of supporters would have been relatively happy leaving Turners Cross last Friday with a share of the spoils as Sligo Rovers bossed the opening half but Cork could have taken all three points only to see Kalen Spillane’s header came back off the post.
Raffael Cretaro, Pascal Millien and Mark Quigley all had chances to secure victory for the visitors but the best chance of the game fell to Cork City’s Shane Duggan after clever play from Vinny Sullivan but his shot lacked the necessary conviction to beat Gary Rogers.
After the game Sligo Rovers manager Ian Baraclough acknowledged some of his players may have been feeling the nerves associated with being so close to winning the title when he said, “Maybe there was a little bit of nervousness. A lot of these lads haven’t been in this position before. They’re starting to feel a little uptight, they need to go and win it and when it’s not quite happening they get edgy and wound up.”
Having arrived in Sligo to take up the role vacated by Paul Cook just a matter of days before the season started Ian Baraclough’s debut season in Irish football has gone better than anybody could have expected. After a dramatic draw in the opening game, against Shelbourne thanks to a Jason McGuinness goal, Baraclough knew he had taken the reins of a team that was already closely knit and with an abundance of experience and character.
Over the course of the year as the expectations of the supporters have escalated Baraclough has remained focused and has maintained the same attacking philosophy that saw his predecessor guide Rovers to successive FAI Cup victories. While the team contains some of the best attacking talent in the league with the likes of Mark Quigley, Joseph Ndo, Danny North and Lee Lynch all having fine seasons, the defensive strength of the team has been key to their success.
Gary Rogers is one of the most experienced goalkeepers in the league while in front of him the centre-back partnership of Jason McGuinness and Gavin Peers has been rock solid throughout the year. Last years full backs Alan Keane and Iarfhlaith Davoren have both been ruled out for the remainder of the season but Ross Gaynor, normally more accustomed to terrorising defences has been a revelation at left back.
Players like Danny Ventre and David Cawley are others who don’t always get the recognition they deserve but their presence in the heart of midfield has broken up countless attacks over the course of the season and both have also shown their ability in the attacking third of the pitch.
The departure of Romauld Boco in August has seen Pascal Millien and Raffael Cretaro being afforded more game time in recent weeks and both have weighed in with some impressive performances.
While excitement in Sligo may be about to reach fever pitch, Baraclough is all too aware that getting the better of St Pat’s, who last weekend qualified for the FAI Cup final will be no easy task.
Looking ahead to Saturday’s game Baraclough said, “It’s going to be a great game. The most difficult game is the one to get you over the line and Pat’s will come into it knowing they have to win.”