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Surfing in Strandhill, selling Hugo Boss and Joey Ndo's smile - How Sligo Rovers became champions in 2012

The Bit O’Red’s former players and manager recall how bonds were formed and memories of a lifetime made en route to winning the club’s first title in 35 years.

Sligo Rovers supporters celebrate their first league title in 35 years.
Sligo Rovers supporters celebrate their first league title in 35 years.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

THEY KNEW SOMETHING was up when he didn’t report to the team hotel the night before travelling.

When the Sligo Rovers squad gathered at the airport and he was still nowhere to be seen, the writing was on the wall.

He had gone AWOL.

Then, as they boarded the plane to Bratislava for the first leg of their Europa League second qualifying round tie with Spartak Trnava, the head flight attendant made an announcement.

“Would Mr. Mark Quigley please make himself known to a member of the cabin crew.”

Nothing.

A few more last-minute checks were carried out.

Another announcement.

“If there is a Mr. Mark Quigley on board, please make yourself known to a member of the cabin crew.”

Again. Nothing.

Sligo chairman Dermot Kelly and midfielder Joseph Ndo looked across the aisle at each other and smiled. 

“I do not think that he is coming,” the former Cameroon World Cup star announced. 

Laughter filled the plane and that was that. 

This was 18 July 2012 and, by that point, Quigley had scored just one Premier Division goal in the first 18 games.

The Dubliner wanted to return to the capital and Shamrock Rovers – now managed by one Stephen Kenny – thought they had got their man.

So much so that one board member from the Hoops phoned up a counterpart at Sligo to tell them that the player wanted to join, and that it was in everyone’s best interest that they let him go.

Sligo refused.

gary-rogers-and-mark-quigley-celebrate-after-the-game Mark Quigley (right) with goalkeeper Gary Rogers after winning the league. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Hence the no-show from Quigley for the Europa League trip in a bid to force their arm.

Sligo stood firm, though, and it proved crucial.

Three months later they were champions for the first time in 35 years – only the third time in their entire history.

Quigley replaced top scorer Danny North in the starting XI after he suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury in Slovakia.

The understudy stepped up, scoring 10 goals in 11 games, with his last strike coming from the penalty spot to secure the title in a dramatic 3-2 win over St Patrick’s Athletic

To top it all, he was also crowned player of the year by his peers at the PFA Ireland awards.

All this when he barely kicked a ball for the first half of the campaign. But in a league where wages are modest and contracts far from secure, pragmatism among his teammates won the day.

mark-quigley-scores-the-winning-penalty Quigley converts the penalty to win the league for Sligo. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Senior players rallied around him and didn’t make life difficult. Quigley was a popular, enigmatic figure and his talent was not in doubt. 

“Quigs isn’t someone you shout and scream at,” former centre back Gavin Peers says. “He’s someone you have to encourage to get the best out of. That’s the best way to deal with him.

“Our dressing room wasn’t a place for grudges and we had to get the best out of him because he’s such a good player. On the other hand, someone like Danny Ventre who is still one of my best mates, we would be punching the head off each other at half-time if things weren’t going well.

“Then we would drive home in the car together not a bother and it would all be forgotten.”

But before the Quigley episode threatened to damage the season, it looked as if the campaign was going to be a disaster before a ball was even kicked in anger.

Paul Cook was the larger than life Liverpudlian who had taken Sligo by storm in the previous four years as manager.

He delivered back-to-back FAI Cups in 2010 and 2011 and, in what turned out to be his final season in charge, they also finished second to champions Shamrock Rovers.

ian-baraclough-celebrates-13102012 Ian Baraclough on the pitch when the title was secured. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Sligo were building towards something special under Cook and then, over the course of a messy divorce, it all crumbled as he left for Accrington Stanley in England’s League Two.

The whole episode cut through the heart of the club. The entire committee resigned over their handling of the matter.  

The chairman of the day, Michael Toolan, would eventually walk, too.

By that stage, a fortnight before the opening game away to Shelbourne at Tolka Park, Cook had already finalised the entire squad. The budget was spent on 16 senior players.

Players like North and goalkeeper Gary Rogers had been convinced to head west from St Pat’s. 

I was actually at home in England after the season and got the call from Cookie,” North remembers. “The club flew me over and I stayed around for a couple of days. It was before the start of pre-season and he was telling me all about the club.

“He told me about the plans he had and what he wanted to achieve – win the league, basically – and how keen he was on me to be a part of it. The way Sligo played and the players already there, it was an easy decision.”

So North decided to move his partner and four-month-old daughter to Sligo.

Not long after and the man who convinced him was gone.

“I remember driving up to training at the Clarion Hotel at the time and coming through the gates, then all of a sudden I see Cookie going the other way and I’m thinking: ‘oh, have I got this wrong? what’s going on here?’ Rogers remembers.

It turns out he was on his way to the airport to go back to England. I joined Sligo because I thought it was a great opportunity to win a league title. I was away with the PFAI team for out of contract players when he’d called me.

“Everyone was in the same boat because he signed us all. We didn’t know what was going to happen.”

The powers that be began to formulate a plan and there were two contenders for the job. Ian Baraclough was working as a scout for Watford after being sacked as Scunthorpe United manager 11 months previously.

Dave Penney, another Englishman, had been in charge of Doncaster Rovers, Darlington, Oldham Athletic and Bristol Rovers over the previous decade.

With time of the essence, the club flew both men over at the same time to different airports. One senior board member met Baraclough and another Penney. Sligo were playing a pre-season friendly away to Longford.

“The plan was to bring one to the ground and show them around while the other was being interviewed somewhere else, then when that was done we’d bring the other to the ground while the other interview was done,” a source explains.

“It was working and everyone thought they were great until Dave Penney spotted Ian in the stand at Longford and realised: ‘hold on, that’s Ian Baraclough in the stand’. Then the whole plan was ruined.”

joseph-ndo Danny Ventre, Joseph Ndo and manager Ian Baraclough. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Baraclough edged the vote among the board members and was unveiled on Wednesday, 29 February, 2012. The season began away to Shels at Tolka Park two days later.

“It was a strange one because I hadn’t applied for it and I didn’t even know where Sligo was,” Baraclough, now in charge of Norther Ireland’s Under-21s, explains.

“I got a call on a Sunday night asking would I be interested. I went online, did some digging about the club and the players, for a start to try and find where Sligo was in relation to the rest of Ireland.

“I did as much work as I could to get to know the players and the people involved around the club.”

Still, nothing quite prepares you for the realities of the League of Ireland.

I walked into the office and there were two desks. Maurice Monaghan, a great guy and coach, he would do anything for you like so many other people he was sitting behind the big desk with his feet up on the table.

“I just walked in and asked: ‘so, which desk is mine, then?’” Baraclough chuckles.

A phone call from Ndo soon followed, the midfielder asking to meet ‘for a quick chat’. “But there is no such thing as a quick chat with Joey, he is a deep thinker about the game and it was fascinating to listen to him. That conversation helped, I think,” Baraclough adds.

What was of even more importance was a positive result in his first game, something that didn’t seem likely when Quigley was sent off and Shelbourne took the lead. Then, deep into injury time, Peers and fellow centre back Jason McGuinness combined for the latter to nick an equaliser.

“It helped the mood so much,” McGuinness insists. “We were up and running. After that we were flying.”

jason-mcguinness-and-joseph-ndo Jason McGuinness and Joseph Ndo embrace with the league trophy. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Sligo won their next five – although one of those victories over Monaghan was expunged when they went bust while Euro 2012 was in full flow – and bonds were beginning to be strengthened.

Riverstown, on the outskirts of the town and which had become the squad’s enclave thanks to the help of committee member Ivor Parke, was crucial to that.

“We all lived around each other. Our doors would be open and each other’s kids would be going in and out not a bother,” McGuinness recalls.

Peers adds: “It was something we wanted to do to include new players, there would be dinners on, people would come around. It was a special time for everyone, I think.”

The football – and success – was the glue. There were, of course, times during the season when the players could go for a drink together and enjoy themselves. If they ended up in local nightclub Toffs they knew it would be a good night.

“We did it at the right times, we were able to relax and have the craic together when we could,” North says.

scuffles-erupt-between-sligo-rovers-and-shamrock-rovers-players Sligo players clash with Shamrock Rovers with Jason McGuinness (centre). Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

There would be days out at Strandhill surfing but with my knees I was never going to be able to do that. So I’d sit across in the pub and watch drinking Guinness all day. Then we would head into town and go to karaoke.

“It wasn’t like we were doing it every week but we all got on. We wanted to have the craic together.”

Although surfing wasn’t to everyone’s tastes. “The length of me, are you joking? No chance I’d fit on a surf board,” McGuinness laughs.

The players immersed themselves in the town and Sligo took them to their hearts. Winning football matches helped, of course, and as the season progressed the realisation that this group of players were on course to end the club’s 35-year wait for the league title became a reality.

“Ian was great about it,” McGuinness continues. “His sessions were top class, you were looking forward to coming into training every day because it was challenging, the attention to detail and the enjoyment of working was great.”

danny-north-celebrates-scoring-the-third-goal Danny North celebrates his side's third goal against Shamrock Rovers. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The mismatch of characters in the dressing room were easily managed because at the core they shared one similar trait: they were winners.

“The amount of leaders we had, there was no messing about,” North adds. “I remember scoring the third goal against Shamrock Rovers and doing that old ‘Easy, Easy’ chant by clapping my hands over my head.

“Jay [McGuinness] grabbed me and told me to stop it, that we had a job to do and to stop taking the piss.”

Others, like Danny Ventre, surprised North when he arrived. “When I played against him for St Pat’s I just thought he was this chirpy little Scouser who Cookie brought over from Liverpool to be his friend in Sligo.

But he was a proper leader, a really, really good player. He kept things ticking over for us, he read the game and knew what his job was, he did the right things for the team and he is a great fella. He’d do anything for you.”

And if there was a few extra quid to be made from it that might help, too.

“Ah, his bag of tricks,” Peers laughs. “He’d go home to Liverpool and come back with bags full of anything for you. He was a little wheeler, dealer.”

North continues: “You knew when he went to Liverpool he would come back and have a bag full of Hugo Boss gear or whatever and would be straight over to the young lads.”

“McGuinness gets in on the act: “I never touched any of it! Sure he could never get anything to fit me!”

mark-quigley-celebrates-the-winning-goal Vice captain Gavin Peers (topless) jumps on his teammates. Source: Margaret McLaughlin/INPHO

St Pat’s looked to the main challengers as the season progressed until Drogheda United, under the guidance of Mick Cooke, emerged as another credible challenger.

Neither, though, had the talents of Joseph Ndo.

“He would always be late for training and turn up smiling with about 10 handshakes for everyone but he was always the last to leave, he wanted to help every single player get better,” Gary Rogers remembers, and it’s a point Baraclough expands on.

“You’d move training to 11 o’clock and he would still turn up at 10 past,” he laughs. “That was a learning curve, the players are looking to you to see how you deal with it but I think everyone realised that if Joe was late it was for a reason.”

“Definitely,” McGuinness continues. “When you talk about leaders and characters, Joseph Ndo was the main man. He made everyone believe in ourselves.

“Joe would smile at you on the pitch if things were looking tricky and give you the confidence that everything would be alright. That’s all he needed to do.

mark-quigley-celebrates-scoring-the-winning-penalty-with-danny-ventre Quigleiy (with Danny Ventre dragging at him) celebrates converting the penalty which won the league. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“He would smile and say ‘guys, relax, we are a good team, it will be alright’. You felt better with Joe beside you. And you knew that when he was late for training it was because he was probably up since about six in the morning doing two or three of his own sessions before us.

“It wasn’t as if he was late because he was lying in bed.”

Yoga and foam rollers – now the norm – were introduced by Baraclough with more than a little nudge from Ndo.

And when North – 17 goals to his name at the time – suffered that season ending injury in the July, just days after signing a new contract, the former Cameroon international kicked into protective mode.

“He was always around me making sure my head didn’t go,” the Englishman recalls. “There would be games when I would watch from a different stand and sit alone because it was tough not being there to make a difference.

But Joe was always there telling me I would come back stronger and better. That made such a difference for me.”

danny-ventre-lifts-the-airtricity-league-premier-division-trophy Captain Danny Ventre lifts the league title. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

On the pitch, Quigley was the one taking the limelight and there was one final stage for him to shine on as St Pat’s came to the Showgrounds on 13 October, 2012.

After racing into a two-goal lead courtesy of a brace from Raff Cretaro, the visitors looked like spoiling the party when Christy Fagan and Chris Forrester netted in the second-half.

Then, in the 89th minute, Quigley stepped up to convert from the spot after Conor Kenna handled in the box.

“I’m the youngest of five brothers,” Baraclough begins. “My Mum died when I was eight. She had been ill for a while so we had to really come together as a family after that.

“My Dad had two jobs, my brothers helped me too but my Dad was a real driving force me. He wasn’t always in my ear but he was always there for me when I needed him.

So for my Dad and my brothers to be able to be there for that moment, to see us win the league. That is something I will never forget. It was really special to have that moment with them because it is a time of my life I will never forget.”

 

The same goes for the players. They won the FAI Cup with Baraclough the following season but the side has begun to break up after lifting the title. Quigley got his move to Rovers and he was joined by McGuinness, too. 

“Sligo is a special club with special people,” Peers, who was granted a testimonial in 2016 after a decade of service continues.

“We had the freedom of Sligo after we on the league. I think we drank for two weeks and weren’t sober. We only lost one game before winning the league and I remember how I was told that it would never happen for us in Sligo.

“Someone told me I had to join one of the big Dublin clubs to win a league but we showed everyone that wasn’t the case at all.”

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