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Can Sligo Rovers last the pace in the LOI title race?

Liam Buckley’s side have knocked the champions from the top of the table.

Walter Figueira celebrates Monday's win at Shamrock Rovers.
Walter Figueira celebrates Monday's win at Shamrock Rovers.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

HOW QUICKLY THINGS can change.

Three weeks ago Shamrock Rovers further polished their sheen of invincibility by nabbing a last-minute victory away to Saint Patrick’s Athletic, sending them five points clear at the top and extending the longest unbeaten run in League of Ireland history. 

At the end of that weekend Sligo Rovers were eight points from the summit…and now they are top. 

Four wins on the bounce coupled with the stuttering form of the champions – two defeats and a draw in three games – has Sligo a point clear after 13 games; the pendulum swinging their way thanks to a 1-0 win at Tallaght on Monday night. 

Injuries and suspension have bitten Shamrock Rovers’ hard: Sean Hoare, Ronan Finn, Sean Kavanagh, Neil Farrugia, and Dylan Watts were all missing on Monday night, with Chris McCann fit only for the bench, while Joey O’Brien left through injury after only eight minutes. Circumstances have also blunted their creativity somewhat, as Danny Mandroiu has dropped deeper into midfield to cover absentees while Graham Burke has been playing in spite of not being fully fit. 

It all conspired to offer Sligo Rovers a sight of top spot, which they grabbed without a second thought.

Given they were bottom of the league as recently as August 2020, it’s a pretty remarkable turnaround. 

graham-burke-with-greg-bolger Greg Bolger challenges Graham Burke. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Central to it has been Greg Bolger, who arrived from Shamrock Rovers ahead of the season and is already wearing the armband. A veteran of title-winning campaigns with Pat’s and Rovers, does Bolger see this Sligo team as title contenders? 

“It’s not going to be a lack of effort, the lads are honest to the day”, he says. “The squad is tight. We’ve got a few injuries and it’s a long season. But it won’t be from a lack of effort, everyone is putting a graft in, a shift in, and we’ve got quality as well, we’ll hurt teams. On the back of our hard work, we can hurt teams. We’ve the best defensive record in the league. It’s based on that, trying to be hard to beat, keeping clean sheets.” 

Sligo usually play a kind of 4-2-3-1 with a steely backbone. Bolger and Niall Morahan sit in front of a defensive partnership of Garry Buckley and John Mahon, and opposition sides are finding it decidedly difficult to play through them. 

Sligo have conceded the fewest goals in the Premier Division so far – seven in 13 games – and concede relatively few chances, too: only Pat’s and Shamrock Rovers have conceded fewer shots across the season so far.

Attacking-wise, Johnny Kenny and Ryan De Vries offer depth, and Jordan Gibson has been a revelation playing centrally behind striker Romeo Parkes. His pace and dribbling ability offers Sligo a lethal threat on the counter-attack, as was evident in Monday’s win over Tallaght.

If Sligo are to take a tilt at the title, however, they will have to continue playing above themselves. WyScout stats show that they have been outperforming both their Expected Goals and Expected Goals Against stats (these are a measure of the quality of chances both created and conceded.) 

Their Expected Goals total so far is actually the second-lowest in the league, at 9.69, only Waterford have created less. They have scored 15 goals, however, outperforming to a greater extent than anyone else in the league. (Drogheda are next closest.)

No side in the division has a greater disparity between their Expected Goals Against and the number of goals conceded either, although this is less relevant as only Shamrock Rovers are giving away fewer goalscoring chances. 

The experience of Bolger and manager Liam Buckley, however, offers the kind of impalpable benefits not measured in stats, and the captain attests to the strength of the dressing room.

“There’s big characters in there. Garry Buckley has won stuff. Myself has won stuff. John Mahon is 21 years of age, he’s like a veteran out there, the big mallet head on him. And then you’ve got the quality up front, and when you’ve got the work-rate and the boys are doing that – Liam, John, myself, we can be demanding of the lads – it bodes well.” 

Off the field, the club are well-run, rooted in their community, and fiercely ambitious: they published plans for a €17.3 million redevelopment of the Showgrounds and academy earlier this month. 

“To go top is great for the group and great for the community in Sligo”, said Buckley after the win at Tallaght. “Living up there now and seeing the effort and time that they put into the club, and the committee of people who run the club and all that, it’s a great reward for them considering the work and effort they put into the whole thing.” 

An improbable title challenge would be quite the reward. 

Premier Division Fixtures 

Friday 

Finn Harps vs Sligo Rovers 5.45pm 

Saint Patrick’s Athletic vs Dundalk 7.45pm 

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Drogheda United vs Derry City 7.45pm 

Saturday 

Longford Town vs Shamrock Rovers 4pm 

Bohemians vs Waterford 4pm

First Division Fixtures (all kick offs at 7.45pm)

Friday 

Cabinteely vs Wexford Youths 

Treaty United vs Bray Wanderers 

Cobh Ramblers vs Cork City 

Shelbourne vs Galway United 

Athlone Town vs UCD

 

 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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