By Ryan Kelly
The 2012 Airtricity Premier Division champions Sligo Rovers were almost immaculate in the execution of their league campaign, losing just three games all season. In fact, by the time that the title was wrapped up, the Bit O'Red had actually lost just one game – a 1-0 anomaly away to relegation-threatened UCD. Ultimately, triumph in the league was the natural progression in the course of the west coast club's evolution. After all, they had won the FAI Cup for two years in a row in 2010 and 2011, as well as finishing runners up last year. Indeed, it was practically there for the taking, and Sligo Rovers duly capitalised on the difficult transition period experienced by Shamrock Rovers after the departure of Michael O'Neill.
Plaudits were inevitably showered on manager Ian Baraclough for guiding the club to their first league title in over three decades, for finally thrusting the team over the proverbial finish line, and while an extremely talented foundation had been set in place by the outgoing Paul Cook, the former Scunthorpe boss did tremendously well to steady the ship at the Showgrounds at the beginning of the season.
However, in stark contrast to their fortunes in the league, Sligo's form in cup competitions left a lot to be desired. They failed to defend the FAI Cup as they were knocked out by Monaghan United, a team that wrestled with issues both on and off the field before finally withdrawing from the league. They were similarly ejected from the Setanta Cup and the EA Sports Cup. Perhaps the only consolation one might offer to the Connaught club is that they were beaten in the two aforementioned competitions by the eventual victors. Likewise, the club's showing in the Europa League lacked the confidence that was routinely on display during league ties and Slovakian outfit Spartak Trnava easily disposed of them in the Second Qualifying Round.
Nevertheless, clinching heretofore elusive league honours – not to mention the accompanying Champions League football – is surely remedy enough for the Bit O'Red faithful. Such is the current nature of the League of Ireland that the task which now follows for Ian Baraclough is to once again steady the ship and he must, in doing so, attempt to build further upon the club's success. There is an abundance of quality in the Sligo team, to which their total of five players in the PFAI Team of the Year certainly testifies, and maintaining this quality will be crucial to any future endeavours. Individuals such as the sturdy centre back Gavin Peers, the experienced Joseph Ndo and instinctual strikers like Mark Quigley and Danny North combine wonderfully in what is an exceptionally well drilled unit. However, a degree of unease has developed among players whose futures remain uncertain and understandably so.
Interestingly, several key players have already spoken to other clubs, but Baraclough is defiant. "There are a lot of people who would love to be playing Champions League, who would jump at that opportunity," he told the Irish Independent. "We will look at the squad in the next couple of weeks and those that want to hang out and wait for more and those who want to go elsewhere, well, do it within the next couple of weeks because I will be bringing in people if not."
Baraclough's words may appear to be rather forceful, but in reality they are consistent with the professionalism that he has demonstrated throughout the season. He must work within the parameters that are set by the club's board and he cannot waste time pandering to inflated egos. The next milestone for Sligo Rovers is to improve their performances in Europe and Champions League football beckons.
The question is, can they continue their evolution?