Tony Quinn: The Spirit of Sligo Rovers
It’s the dreary 1950’s and for many in Sligo the monochrome existence is illuminated only by the Sunday afternoon trip to the Showgrounds to watch the fabled Sligo Rovers, whose brylcreamed players are often muddied, sometimes muddled and betimes majestic.
Lured by the prospect of mid-winter excitement, Tom Quinn cycles the eight miles in from Castlegal in North Sligo for every game and pedals home to regale his young sons with fabulous tales of extravagant deeds by the men in red and white.
Hanging on to every word with breathless anticipation is his son, Tony, who counts the days to when he might be old enough to join his father on this tantalising odyssey to the holy grail of local football.
Over 60 years later, the clarity with which Tony Quinn recalls the milestone of that first mesmerising trip to the Showgrounds illustrates the importance of the occasion in his young life.
“It was 1957, a 1-1 draw with Shams. Johnny Armstrong scored for us and Paddy Coad got their goal, an unforgettable day. I’d been listening to my father talking about Sligo Rovers and the big games at the Showgrounds since I was a very young child, and here I was seeing all these players in the flesh. It was magic,” he recalls.
That magical moment weaves its spell again on this Friday night when the same Tony Quinn receives the ‘Spirit of Sligo Rovers’ award at the club’s annual awards night in recognition of a lifetime’s practical devotion to the club. Seldom has an award been more richly deserved.
The love of the Bit o’ Red nurtured since childhood took on a tangible dimension when, in 1972, Tony was among a group of like-minded North Sligo neighbours who attended the Rovers’ AGM to see if there was anything they could do to assist the badly struggling club. They went in to the gathering as supporters and emerged as greenhorn management committee men. It was the start of 45 years of unwavering service, through good times and bad.
“The first job I was given was a bucket collection throughout the town. We went from door to door in all of the housing estates and businesses. It was the only way to get enough money to start the season. There was always a crisis. We knew nothing else. The club literally survived from week to week, never quite knowing what was coming next,” he recalls.
“The supporters were always very generous, and times were tough for everyone in those days. Naturally, we’d get the few who would complain about us always looking for money, which was true, but most people realised what we were trying to do and that the club was hanging by a financial shoe-string.
“I remember there was always this deathly silence at the AGM when the Treasurer was reading his report. We never knew where the next penny was coming from. There was a constant worry about how we would play the players’ wages.
“But, looking back, one of things I’m proud of from those days is that players were never left short their wages. Maybe the odd time, the wages might have been deferred but the lads always got paid. That was some achievement in itself and often only made possible because committee men dug deep into their own pockets to make up the shortfall.”
According to Tony, the turning point in the 1970’s came with the appointment as player/manager of Billy Sinclair, who proved himself as good a fund raiser as any committee member – and ended a 40 year wait for a League Championship into the bargain. But, having sprung from nowhere, the prosperity evaporated just as quickly.
“We just never seemed able to build on success in those days. Maybe we weren’t ready for it, having spent so many years just being glad to survive. Still, the league success in 1977 seemed to make up for so many bad days, and when we won the FAI Cup for the first time in 1983 it felt like giving something back to the people who had supported us all those years,” Tony asserts.
Another manager held in high regard by Tony is Sean Connor, whom he credits with spawning the successful era of recent years.
“I honestly believe winning the First Division under Sean Connor was the big turning point for the club in the modern era. Remember, he recruited some terrific players, guys like Gavin Peers, Adam Hughes, Faz Kudozovic, Liam Burns and, of course, Seamus Coleman.
“Paul Cook built on that foundation, as in time did Ian Baraclough, and we enjoyed the best spell in the club’s history during that period. The season just ended was tough going, but overall, both on and off the pitch, the club is now a million miles from where it was when I first got involved”, he maintains.
Of course, success on the pitch would not have been possible without the heroic efforts off it by successive management committees. Amongst a myriad of tried and trusted fund raising tactics over the years was the launch of the 500 Club, set up by Tony and his comrades, Peter Henry and the late Brendan Byrne in 2002.
In its first year, the venture raised £32,000. Since then, it has contributed a staggering €1.1million to the club.
“At the peak of the good times, our annual budget would have been in the region of €1.6million, and only about 20% of that comes through the turnstiles, so fund-raising is massively important. Things like the weekly lotto, the annual draw, half-time raffle, programme sales and sponsorship, big and small, all play a part. The 500 Club has been the most important of all and I’m proud to have played my part with many others. In recent years, Vincent Nally has taken it to a new level.
“But, of course, none of that would be possible without people supporting those ventures. And that goodwill is always the most important ingredient of all,” Tony maintains.
Alongside drastically improved results on the pitch in recent years came vast upgrading of facilities at the Showgrounds, now rightly regarded as one of the best venues in the League. Tony has witnessed the transformation at first hand.
“When you walk into the Showgrounds now and look around at the brilliant facilities, the stands, the all-weather pitches, state-of-the-art dressing rooms and so on, it’s hard to imagine that only 25 years ago it was all nettles and weeds. That’s some transformation, and something which I believe all those who worked so hard to make it happen should be really proud of,” he says.
And, having served seven years as vice Chair and one highly successful year as Chairman – overseeing the club’s return to European football and FAI Cup success – and working alongside a battalion of different managers over the years, Tony believes the future of the club is in good hands.
“I honestly believe if we had been relegated this season it would have set the club back several years. But Gerard Lyttle came in and rescued the situation. He’s an excellent coach who has settled very well into the club and its ethos, and I genuinely believe we now have the potential to be back challenging for trophies and European football in the not too distant future.
“He has reinvigorated the supporters, too. We had fantastic support both home and away in the crucial run-in to the season. The travelling support really amazed me. There isn’t a club in the country that would get that level of support in such a difficult season. That makes me very optimistic about the future,” he predicts.
Just as Tony inherited the love for Rovers from his father, the apples have not fallen far from the trees. His own sons, Mark, a former Sligo GAA county senior captain, and Anthony, who has attended more than 300 successive Rovers games, are dyed in the wool Rovers suppporters.
“I’m sure it’s the same story in many Sligo families – that’s what makes the club unique,” says the man who stresses that though he is no longer a member of the committee he will always be available to lend a hand whenever and how ever it’s required.
“Sligo Rovers has been a massive part of my life. Getting an award is not something I ever imagined, but it is an honour which I greatly appreciate,” he modestly asserts.
From Albert Stracha to Albert Rovers; from Gabriel Ojo to Joey Ndo; from the ruins of relegation to the euphoria of Europe – Tony Quinn has seen it all. He truly embodies the spirit of Sligo Rovers, which, fittingly, is precisely what Friday’s award represents.