FOR YEARS the League of Ireland has been the basket-case of Irish sport, the dysfunctional family no one bothers to visit. Its home is a mess, its finances are worse and whenever a silver lining appears on its horizon, a cloud inevitably follows.
The last decade has seen the best of times and the worst. On the field, coaching and playing standards improved to the extent that the League jumped 15 places in UEFA’s co-efficient table, the biggest jump by any league in European history.
But the League that unearthed Kevin Doyle and Shane Long, Pat McCourt and James McClean, Seamus Coleman and Wes Hoolahan, had its dark side. Clubs financial sheets were so crazily structured, they made Anglo-Irish Bank appear prudent.
And one by one the titans fell. Shelbourne, champions in 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006 nearly went bankrupt. Cork City, the 2005 winners, entered Examinership, as did Drogheda United, the 2007 victors. Bohemians, heir to the throne, were also inheritors of the title of bad financial planners. Their budget is so small now that the players are practically paid in loose change.
And yet, in 2012, we have a happy ending, a kind of fairytale, except that fairytales occur with a wave of a magic wand. In Sligo, no fairy Godmother arrived. There was no Abromovich-type ego either. Instead, we bore witness to an old fashioned story of a community getting behind its local club and a momentum building over the course of seven years that ended with the team winning their first title since 1977.
A sporting miracle?
It wasn’t. Miracles are unexpected and defy logic. Sligo’s story, however, has been years in the making, and like most successes, has a thousand fathers.
The first was a gruff northerner, Sean Connor, who injected a bit of bite into the team and aggressively challenged the board to spend more money.
They refused. Connor left. And a Scouser, Paul Cook, arrived with a big personality and a loose idea of how the game should be played. Ultimately that would prove his secret and his downfall. Frequently, players would have the day off training. Lacking attention to detail, Sligo failed in Europe whereas almost every other Irish team succeeded against the odds. Yet, on home turf, Cook perfected his recipe for success, basing it on making his players feel good about themselves.
And on a regular basis, he’d unearth uncut diamonds from faraway lands, Romuald Boco from Benin, Pascal Millien from Haiti, blending them in with the talented locals, the Seamus Coleman’s and Rafael Cretaro’s. A run to the FAI Cup final in 2009 promised glory but ended in heartache. And yet they bounced back, winning back to back Cups the following years, all the while suggesting a League title was theirs to grab.
Two weeks ago, it happened. In thrilling circumstances, against their nearest challengers, St Pat’s, they took a 2-0 lead, surrendered it and then scored a late winner to clinch their first championship since 1977.
Except that Cook, the man who built the team, was no longer there for the completion of the journey. Instead, Ian Barraclough, a journeyman player whose only previous managerial experience had been disastrously short-lived at Scunthorpe United, was the man carrying the baton as Sligo crossed the finish line.
A polar opposite in personality to Cook – calmer, more organised – he used the hype building around the town to the maximum benefit. “Don’t be daunted by history,” he told his players. “Instead, think of making your own history. Your names, Quigley, Cretaro, North, could be remembered for decades in this town.”
If the names will never be forgotten, then neither will the story of how it happened, how a town bitten by the recession, stung by job losses and emigration, suddenly found a dream to cling onto. When the club explained the realities of running a professional football team – one that costs €1 million per year to finance – the town’s population rallied around. Unemployed labourers helped construct the new stand. Painters provided their time to freshen up the ground. There were collections in supermarkets, an annual draw that took in €46,000 in June, volunteers offering their time to work as stewards at games. “People wanted a positive outlet in their lives,” said Barraclough. “Sligo Rovers were happy to give it.”
It wasn’t the only charitable action to benefit Sligo. Back in Dublin – where four clubs, St Pat’s, Shels, Shamrock Rovers and Bohs had shared every league title bar two since 1997 – an implosion occurred.
From the height of the boom, when Shels, Bohs, Pat’s, Cork and Drogheda all inflated their budgets to exceed €2 million a year, a sense of reality kicked in. This year, Shamrock Rovers were the league’s top spenders, paying roughly €600,000 on players wages. Sligo came second in the spending League but won the football equivalent.
The difference now was that players recognised The Showgrounds as the place to be. In a level paying field, Sligo could offer top wages to the League’s best players, Danny North, Jason McGuinness, Mark Quigley and Joseph Ndo. They all moved west to live. During the boom, these players preferred the shirts, and payslips, of St Pat’s, Bohs, Shels.
Finally, it all came together. Cook’s determination brought them to the point where they could see glory; Barraclough’s tactical shrewdness guided them to their peak.
But behind it all lay a board whose conservative attitude to finances ensured no one lost the run of themselves.
And when the financial doping practices finished in Irish football, those who practised prudence were allowed their moment in the sun. “In dreams begins responsibility,” wrote William Butler Yeats, Sligo‘s most famous son. From up above, he looked down on his heirs running their club like wise men but communicating in the language of the people.