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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Sligo thriving in a league less ordinary

Baraclough-NWHILE even its most zealous of devotees would quickly agree that the League of Ireland is a place of unfixable flaws, one of its most appealing aspects is its capacity to surprise.

Unlike mainstream Europe, where you could pick the next 10 champions from examining clubs’ financial statements, no one in Ireland can safely predict where the balance of power is about to shift.

Right now, it lies with Sligo Rovers — for so long regarded as a quaint little outpost who made up the numbers — but who are now putting together the sort of numbers that could put them in the record books.

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Following their 2-0 win over Cork City at the weekend, the defending champions now have eight wins out of eight games, whereas the pre-season favourites, Shamrock Rovers, have won just twice, drawing their other six games.

Given how the Dubliners have the larger budget — and, because of their location, a bigger pool of players to select from — Sligo’s blistering start has taken a few by surprise.

Yet should it have? Fears of their decline may have surfaced after the departure of their top striker and leading defender from last year — who reappeared in Shamrock Rovers colours for the commencement of this season — but Sligo’s manager, Ian Baraclough, is already demonstrating an uncanny ability to unearth an uncut gem out of nowhere.

His latest shopping spree brought a 31-year-old journeyman striker, Anthony Elding, west of the Shannon.

With 14 previous clubs behind him — spells at Leeds United and the Hungarian side, Ferencvaros, being the most eye-catching — plenty wondered if the nomad would settle. He is averaging more than a goal-a-game.

Sligo, meanwhile, are averaging slightly less than three goals per game in all 2013 competitions, a remarkable statistic in a League where so many managers have described their career highlights as the moment when they saw their team take up the perfect tactical shape in defending a throw-in.

Baraclough — no slouch with the tactics board — is different. Whereas the bulk of the League’s managers are obsessed with the 4-2-3-1 formation perfected by Spain and Barcelona, the Sligo manager is prepared to make-do-and-mend when he has injuries, or to simply throw caution to the wind when facing weaker opposition.

His willingness to (predominantly) opt for an old-fashioned 4-4-2 format may antagonise the coaching nerds who believe games are won by tactics first and players second — yet the policy is clearly working.

The upshot is a more entertaining League — because while no one expects Sligo to dominate the Irish game for ever and a day, there are plenty who presumed Shamrock Rovers would seize control when they won the second of their back-to-back titles in 2011.

Yet Irish football has always had a rebellious streak. S

ince the last great Rovers side won four-in-a-row in the mid-80s, clubs have shared success in an egalitarian manner. Dundalk, Cork City, Derry City (twice each), St Pat’s and Bohs (four times), Shels (five times), Rovers on three occasions, Drogheda United and Sligo on one, have all had their moments in the sun, usually followed by longer, duller winters as the boom and bust culture followed champions around like the plague.

This time, we hope, things will be different. Both Sligo and Shamrock Rovers have been prudent in their spending — Sligo refusing to pay over the odds to keep the two players, Mark Quigley and Jason McGuinness, who had more generous packages on offer from Tallaght, whereas Rovers were prepared to allow their former manager, Michael O’Neill, leave for the Northern Ireland job when he called for an additional 10 per cent of the club’s revenue to be spent on boosting his squad.

The net result is that every club starts every year with renewed hope. Dundalk, for example, were lightweights last season but are currently in third position this year. Their budget hasn’t changed but their manager has.

Change is what we can expect from the list of champions in the forthcoming years. No one would have given Sligo a prayer of dominating the domestic game five years ago. No one can look beyond them for now.

Can you say the same about Europe’s big leagues? Three Italian sides, Inter, AC Milan and Juve, have shared every title since 2000; Liverpool and Manchester United have won 23 of the 38 English championships since 1975; Real Madrid and Barcelona have won all bar four La Liga titles since 1984; Bayern have won nine Bundesliga crowns since 1998. And those clubs — with the notable exception of Liverpool — will continue to win.

At least in Ireland, nobody knows what will happen next. This unpredictability could be the saving of a League that needs to cling to every bit of hope it can.

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