AUTHOR: Kieran Burke – @Kieran_B_Sport
If you had offered Liam Buckley and Sligo Rovers fans European football again in 2022, the vast majority would have gladly accepted that outcome before a ball was kicked last season. However, having made a rapid start to the 2021 League of Ireland campaign, it was the manner in which the Bit O’Red folded come the business end of the season that left the achievement of another top-three finish feeling a tad underwhelming overall.
The Westerners tame European exit at the hands of an average-looking FH side can certainly be pinpointed as a major turning point in Sligo Rovers 2021 story as a winless six-game spell in all competitions followed. That luckless streak included FAI Cup humiliation at the hands of struggling First Division side Cork City while in the Premier Division Shamrock Rovers and St.Pat’s left the Bit O’red eating dust as they pulled away to battle it out for the title.
While injuries to experienced operators such as Greg Bolger can be pointed to as excuses for such a lack of character following the Euro exit, there were more than enough experienced players in that dressing room to guide Buckley’s charges through that rocky spell and for whatever reason there just seemed to be no reaction at all as results continued to tumble in the wrong direction.
Two of Sligo Rovers bright lights from last season, Johnny Kenny and John Mahon have since been snapped up by Scottish Premiership sides but Liam Buckley has attempted to replace those star assets with players with potential and perhaps points to prove which may be no bad thing given the apparent lack of hunger displayed following the European exit last season.
Will Fitzgerald played 35 times for Derry City last season but was allowed to leave by Ruaidhrí Higgins following a spate of star arrivals at the Brandywell while Paddy Kirk was never able to display his best abilities in a struggling Longford Town team last season. Karl O’Sullivan is a technically gifted player who should fit into Liam Buckley’s style of play perfectly after his move from Finn Harps while a couple of overseas additions will add plenty of intrigue at the Showgrounds this season.
But what is the goal for Sligo Rovers in 2022? Naturally, when you’ve secured consecutive top-four finishes you would always be hoping the next step is up but it is difficult to see how this Sligo side can compete with the likes of Shamrock Rovers, Derry City and St.Pat’s next season.
Another top-four finish, a better showing in both the FAI Cup and Europe have to be the objectives for the Bit O’Red this season but as ever that fourth spot looks wide open meaning this could be a difficult season for veteran boss Liam Buckley.
BTS PREDICTION: 6th
STAR PERFORMER: Ed McGinty (They’ll do well to hold him much longer)
ONE TO WATCH: Karl O’Sullivan