The loud music, like it does after most games, came blaring out of the dressing room minutes after full-time. The evening’s party, without doubt, had started. Yet many, especially if unaware that this was a frequent occurrence, would have thought it was a celebration from the Sligo Rovers players.
One point closer to a first league title in 35 years and more importantly a single win away from the Promised Land, the knowledge that a win over nearest challengers St Patrick’s Athletic next Saturday will see them end the wait in front of their own fans, left the Bit O’Red content leaving Turner’s Cross.
To get things straight though, it was by no means a celebration. They don’t need to be told that three points still have to be acquired, and with the most difficult of run-ins, facing second, third and finally fourth-placed in that order, the title is not quite guaranteed yet.
By far, Sligo have been the best team in the league, played the most eye-catching football and remained consistently impregnable at the rear. If it does arrive, and this is not an attempt at tempting fate, a third title will have been fully deserved.
One man deserves much of the plaudits. Ian Baraclough, when he arrived at the club at the beginning of the year, admittedly knew little about the league, but he has nonchalantly sat himself into the warm seat of Paul Cook and picked up where the scouser left off. Continuity was always going to be crucial and the transition has been seamless.
There might be a bald patch appearing – the pressures of management, eh Ian? – on the crown of his head but he remains a calm, if slightly reserved, presence. Indeed, when asked last night if he had a big task at hand in terms of keeping the players level-headed in the coming days, he delivered quite a weighted response.
“In a weird way, this performance was a message for us to be bang at it. Free the shackles because if we’re wide open next week we will get hurt.
“(Pressure) can affect people certainly. It’s not drilled into them that there’s pressure on them though, the message to them is to go and do what they’ve been doing all season, express themselves.
“But maybe there was a little bit of nervousness. A lot of these lads haven’t been in this position before. They’re starting to feel a little uptight, (they know) they need to go and win it and when it’s not quite happening they get edgy and wound up.”
It was, without doubt, a tentative performance, full of nervous energy. There was no sign of the clinical conviction which has been prevalent throughout the season, against a team that in all three meetings in 2012 have frustrated them. With one hand on the trophy, it can often be very difficult to raise the second arm around the handle of the silverware.
That’s not to discredit Cork, who did a sterling job in containing the champions-elect for long spells, but there was an unmistakable tension on the pitch and off it. Around 500 supporters made the long trek south and hidden under the shade of the St Anne’s End, an atmosphere of nervousness could be felt emanating from the stands.
In many ways, as Baraclough agreed, last night may have been a wake-up call, a message that it’s not quite over yet. For a team that has lost just once all season, a defeat at home to Pat’s would ensure a wobbly ending.
“It’s going to be a great game,” he says of next Saturday’s meeting. “The most difficult game is the one to get you over the line and Pat’s will come into it knowing they have to win.”
He was also freely willing to acknowledge that Cork could have easily inflicted a second defeat on them: “We could have lost it tonight; we were wide open in the second half. Maybe there was a little bit of naivety there. Sometimes you’ve to accept that maybe it’s not your night and if you have to take a point so be it.
“When we lost possession we were wide open to the counter and that wasn’t like us. I’m not coming away feeling as we should have had three points. Our final ball just wasn’t quite there.
“I felt we lacked the energy of previous weeks. We did all the preparation right, came down the night before, were fully rested but there just didn’t seem to be a spark.”
They have thrived on that spark all season but a match will need to be lit one more time next weekend or a nervy conclusion awaits.
Alan Smith has been writing for ExtraTime since 2008. He works as a full-time journalist based in Cork, working as a sub-editor for TCM and freelancing for a range of national titles. Follow him on twitter @alansmith90.