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6 months ago, they were laid off. Now, they're pushing for Europe

Sligo Rovers are feeling stronger after coming through difficult times.

Sligo team huddle (file pic).
Sligo team huddle (file pic).
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

SIX MONTHS AGO, the immense impact of the coronavirus pandemic on football, and in particular Irish football, was starting to become fully apparent.

While others would follow, on 19 March, Sligo Rovers became the first Premier Division club to announce that they were temporarily laying off all management, players and administration staff until the resumption of the League of Ireland season.

The Bit O’Red said the decision was only way to secure the club’s long-term future.

Part of the statement explained: “Our income streams, like nearly all other businesses in the country, have been decimated and we simply cannot afford to function at our full cost level while having little or no income.”

It subsequently concluded: “Our community and supporter base provides extraordinary support that defies logic and helps sustain our club. 

“Our promise as a committee is to get through this period and return with a sustainable and healthy Sligo Rovers.”

These words ring true, when you consider that in 2018 alone, a number of events helped the club raise more than €320,000 through local support.

“It is a community-based club here, the people come to matches in great numbers. There is a great belief in the club but with no matches, no fundraising going on because there can be no collective gatherings, for a club like us we can’t sustain that going forward,” Buckley told The42 on the day the unfortunate announcement was made.

It didn’t help matters that Sligo had made a dreadful start to the season. Buckley’s men had lost all four of their opening fixtures.

That poor run of results coupled with the blow of being temporarily laid off meant many critics would have been tipping Sligo for relegation, when the season resumed.

The Bit O’Red played the last League of Ireland fixture before the pandemic-enforced break, a 3-2 loss to Shamrock Rovers on 7 March, and were also involved in the first game back 146 days later on 31 July, as they picked up their first points of the season amid a surprise 2-0 win away to Derry.

That result provided the team with some much-needed impetus and they have subsequently built on that fresh start. In their seven Premier Division fixtures since then, they have won four, lost two and drawn one. That run has included impressive wins over Dundalk and Shelbourne.

As a consequence, they now find themselves fifth in the Premier Division table, just one point behind third-place Dundalk.

Sligo CEO Colin Feehily is delighted but not surprised that the club have managed to recover so well from the dual dilemmas of an awful start combined with temporary redundancy.

“It wasn’t a decision that anybody took lightly,” Feehily says of the well-documented cuts. “We feel that performances on the pitch have shown that players are behind the club and they’re with the club through it all since lockdown.

It would have been easier for the club to switch off and down tools, but since that game up in Derry, we’ve been in good form. 

“It’s been going quite well on the pitch and that shows that the players, their understanding of the situation at the time and how they’ve nothing against the club.

“We were forthcoming to them all and communication was good, we’re all on the same page.

“We knew that the players would understand. They’re not just good footballers, they’re decent people too.

“The captain and the spokespeople for the team were all with the club. We tried turning it from a negative into a positive.”

As awful as it was in many respects, Feehily says the lockdown at least gave the players a chance to regroup and assess where it was going wrong on the pitch.

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Feehily admits the long-term sustainability of the club has been a concern at times this year, though he remains confident they will survive amid this challenging climate.

“I don’t think we ever felt it was going to have the worst possible impact on the club and we were going to drop out or anything. You just had to keep a sensible head, a calm approach to it. I think that’s what we did and we’re sort of not out the other side yet, but things are looking okay and we’re just getting on with things now, getting used to this new normality.”

junior-ogedi-uzokwe-with-will-longbottom Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe (right) joined Sligo just before the league's resumption. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe, the league’s top scorer with Derry City last season, signed for Sligo just before the season’s resumption at the end of July. A previous stint with Israeli side Hapoel Hadera ended prematurely owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite their woeful start, Ogedi-Uzokwe says the dressing room was not short on morale when he arrived.

“Everyone seemed confident and it looked like we all knew that we shouldn’t even be in this situation we’re in,” he says. “It was just a matter of time to turn it around. It was [reassuring] to know everyone was putting it in and looking forward to a good start and obviously changing where we were in the table, so the morale was positive.”

Feehily agrees, suggesting the club were in a “false position” after those opening four games and that their current place in fifth is more indicative of the squad’s ability.

“I think everyone has commented on how even from Shamrock Rovers, doing well at the top, they’re probably running away with it. Bohemians will chase them and I’m sure Dundalk will finish strongly as well. But from those three down, it’s a very even league and every team will fancy beating each other.”

Indeed, a win over Waterford at the RSC today (kick-off: 5pm) would put Sligo third, at least until Dundalk’s match with Shamrock Rovers tomorrow.

Nonetheless, with six games remaining, they are also currently only seven points off the relegation zone, such are the strange ramifications of the league’s unusual format this season.

In addition to the Waterford clash, the next week also encompasses a home fixture with Derry on Tuesday and a visit to Shamrock Rovers on Friday.

Hence, the next week will go a long way towards determining whether Buckley’s side will be ultimately battling to ensure their top-flight status or closing in on Europe.

The future, if not quite bright, is certainly looking less gloomy than it had appeared earlier this year. A small selection of fans have been permitted to attend certain games, while the club have offered to pay for WATCHLOI passes to the 800-plus supporters who had originally signed up for season tickets at the beginning of the campaign.

Nonetheless, Feehily acknowledges there are bound to be further challenges ahead in the not-too-distant future.

All the clubs, not just in the League of Ireland, but in the lower leagues in England and other similar leagues to ourselves, they’ll have a tough 2020-21 I think.

“I think less incomes will have a bigger impact next year than this season.

“We don’t know, there were new government guidelines during the week on whether you can have 100 or 200 or more at our games. At the moment, we can only let in 100. If that goes on for the whole of next season, we’re going to have a problem on our hands, like all clubs will.

“Everybody knows there’s so much uncertainty and fingers crossed those crowds will be increased at some stage [soon] and the rates of the virus will come down and crowds can be increased, and that will help all the clubs.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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