Roscommon’s gifted generation aiming to halt dominant Dublin’s momentum
Belief is high in Roscommon that they can avenge the 2012 final defeat
Enda Smith and Ronan Daly of Roscommon celebrate their All-Ireland under-21 semi-final win over Cork. Photograph: Inpho
In Tullamore today Dublin seek to repeat their 2012 trick. That is, beating Roscommon in the All-Ireland under-21 football final. “But two years ago Dublin were a stronger team,” says Fergal O’Donnell. “I think we are stronger now, because we have more strength in depth than this Dublin panel.
“Just looking at the semi-finals in isolation, Roscommon appear to have improved more than the Dubs since the minor grade. And Dublin are without Ciarán Kilkenny.”
O’Donnell must be taken seriously having captained Roscommon to a Connacht title in 2001 before managing the minors to All-Ireland success in 2006. Yet, Roscommon’s underage structures may be faltering even as they reach the pinnacle of under-21 achievement.
In contrast, Dublin have a production line that appears unbreakable right now. The rise of a dynasty. Roscommon’s time appears to be now and might only be now. Sport is a numbers game but also, more now than ever before in Gaelic games, it’s about the conditioning of collective strength.
“Dublin have it down to a fine art,” says Kerry under-21 manager Darragh Ó Sé. “They are being monitored properly. They get them at 16, 17 or younger.”
Ó Sé uses the example of Jack McCaffrey, a teenager who didn’t look like one last summer. “Whoever oversees McCaffrey’s conditioning at minor is doing it at under-21 and all the way through. Kerry are changing through the grades to different weights guys. It’s not seamless yet. Dublin have that down.”
Since the national breakthrough of 2006, a Roscommon side that gave us Donie Shine, another wave of talented footballers have been unearthed thanks in the main to work done right down to under-14.
No more All-Ireland success yet, but Connacht minor titles were gathered in 2011 and 2012. They went to the under-21 All-Ireland final in 2012 as well. Lost to Dublin. A better Dublin than what O’Donnell sees today.
“If anything we have slipped in the last few years. Took our eye off the ball, maybe due to the success or we simply don’t have the finances.”
There is no under-17 development squad at present.
“That worries me,” O’Donnell, who is back working with the minors, continues. “We’ve got to be careful. I know Ciarán Heneghan, who trains the under-16s, feels very strongly about this. The minors this year only won one out of five games in the league. The under-16s are not so strong. If we don’t continue to put the work in we will slip off.”
Heneghan is overseeing the review group charged with keeping Roscommon’s football machine well-oiled. “But the county board will need to come in and finance it all,” says O’Donnell.
There’s no grumblings on the funding front when Dublin need assistance from their Parnell Park exchequer.
Ó Sé fears even his native kingdom could fall further away from Dublin.
“It’s different in the last couple of years,” claims the six-time All-Ireland winner. “Even go back to the early 2000s and you can see the strides made by Dublin and a few northern counties.
“Strength and conditioning has had a bigger bearing. Jack McCaffrey, at 19, and Ciarán Kilkenny, at 18, wouldn’t have come through 10 years ago. The numbers are the same so it has to be down to superior physical conditioning. Sure Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly would be midfielders in many other counties.”
Crucially, Dublin’s line of succession is also apparent at management level with Jim Gavin graduating from under-21.
“To be fair to Jim Gavin he is bringing them through. He used Shane Carthy in the league, a fine midfielder.”
But it is the coming of Cormac Costello that has the great Kerry midfielder humming praise. “I think Costello will be the big thing this year. It was against Kerry in the opening round of the league that he really impressed me.
“Adjusting to that environment is a big step for any player but there he was early on, 14 yards out and most players’ instinct would be to put it over the bar. He had the calmness to solo it, he smelt a goal. You rarely see that sort of composure, especially in someone so young.”
The result was an assist for Kevin McManamon’s goal after nine minutes. A 14-man Dublin eventually won by a point with the under-21s – Carthy, McCaffrey, Costello, Kilkenny and Paul Mannion – grouped in the game’s integral paragraph.
None of them looked like under-21s. The Cavan side they beat the last day certainly did.
“There was a stark difference in size but Cavan had a plan, they frustrated Dublin,” says Ó Sé. “There was a big call by the referee and he probably should’ve let common sense prevail, let it go to extra-time. That’s when Dublin’s conditioning probably would’ve shone through anyway.
“The structures, from clubs to county administration, are all on the same page. Take George O’Connor from Wexford [not just from Wexford but one of their great hurlers]. George is coaching kids up in Dublin more than Wexford. Yes, it’s a population thing and the others are suffering but that’s not Dublin’s fault.”
It’s like the rise of communism, the collectivisation of the masses. Except sport is different in that it can produce gems like the current Roscommon under-21s, under the clever tutelage of Nigel Dineen, which cannot be mined for others to profit. Unless they are stolen by emigration. Then again, maybe New York or London will benefit from this experience.
O’Donnell doesn’t fear Dublin’s power nor their footballing abilities, more the centre of excellence they have built around their youth.
“The difference with Dublin is resources. There is no central training area in Roscommon. They have to borrow or beg for a pitch if they want to train on a Wednesday.”
There is a pitch laid aside for Tuesday and Thursday sessions but that doesn’t allow much flexibility.
“It means the likes of Nigel and all those he has brought in, a decent collection of players he played alongside, have to focus on matters they shouldn’t be focussing on rather than football matters.”
“These are very unusual times for us in Roscommon,” O’Donnell continues. “We have quality throughout this under-21 team and I wouldn’t say that lightly. I’d usually sit on the fence! But we have a great chance. We have experienced lads from two years ago. We have Enda Smith, who is an unbelievable player and Tom Corcoran in midfield.
“But we may never see this again. These things go in cycles. Sure look at Armagh back down in Division Three.”
If Roscommon manage to combine the current senior panel with this wave of underage talent what heights can be scaled?
“I think together, the senior panel and this under-21 group can be a top eight side. They will need to get into Division One but they have the potential to do what Kildare did,” says O’Donnell.
“They were knocking on the door for a while there – okay they didn’t get in – but they were within a whisker of beating Down and Donegal in All-Ireland quarter-finals.
“They fell short but they became a top eight county. Roscommon can do that.”
By way of contrast, what does Ó Sé think of Dublin’s future?
“I think they are only beginning to reap the rewards.”