Burke fans competitive flames within squad as Roscommon warm to top-flight task

Newcomers Cregg and O’Carroll bring their impressive UCD Sigerson form to help inspire opening victory over Tyrone

There was an added anxious hush when in the quiet anticipation around Dr Hyde Park last Sunday the announcement came through of three late changes to the Roscommon team. Nothing sends a greater chill down the neck of even the most faithful supporter.

Besides Tyrone were in town, the 2021 All-Ireland champions, the opening weekend of Allianz Football League already loaded with pressing necessity, especially when it came to Roscommon’s survival prospects in Division One. Now was not the time for any great experimentation.

Freshly promoted again from last year, Roscommon have been the yo-yo champions of the league for the last decade or so – playing in all four divisions, each of the last six seasons ending in either promotion from Division Two or relegation from Division One.

Indeed they hadn’t won a top flight match since pre-Covid times, and hadn’t beaten Tyrone in any senior competition in 20 years. For new Roscommon manager Davy Burke, the 34-year-old Kildare native and youngest inter-county manager in the senior game, who only took charge in late October, there was pressure in the air.


So when those three late changes amounted to three first league starts – Conor Carroll in goal, Daire Cregg and Ben O’Carroll among the forwards – that anxious hush turned more anxious again.

Carroll and Cregg were making their first senior starts in any competition, as was Robbie Dolan at right half forward, the changes more surprising given Cregg replaced Enda Smith, and O’Carroll was in for Ciaráin Murtagh, two of the old and trusted guards.

Donie Smith had already been named on the bench, the long-serving Boyle forward with 99 appearances to his name already, between league and championship. Burke’s team selection was young and bold and in more ways than one.

And it worked a treat, Roscommon winning 3-11 to Tyrone’s 1-12, to ensure confidence is soaring as they head down to old rivals Galway this Sunday for Round 2.

Any concern that Cregg, also from Boyle, and O’Carroll, from St Brigid’s mightn’t yet be up to the task was promptly dismissed, Cregg setting up O’Carroll for Roscommon’s opening score, before O’Carroll doubled the advantage; he finished with 1-2, including the injury-time goal which sealed Roscommon’s delight, Cregg scoring one from play while orchestrating countless other offensive moves.

Burke clearly knew their capabilities, aided by the fact he’s been observing their progress with UCD in this season’s Sigerson Cup (Burke also manages NUI Maynooth).

On the previous Wednesday Cregg hit 2-2 as UCD put 7-8 past Ulster University at Jordanstown, setting up this evening’s (Wednesday) quarter-final showdown against Technological University Dublin.

That appointment limits their involvement with Roscommon training this week in advance of the Galway game, though Burke is okay with that. Donie Smith came off the bench on the hour to make that 100th appearance, both Enda Smith and Ciaráin Murtagh also making a telling impact when introduced, Smith deftly setting up Murtagh for Roscommon’s first goal on 53 minutes, after Tyrone had gone three points clear.

“Yeah, great team goals, but who did the first come from?” Burke duly noted. “Two subs, Enda Smith and Ciarán Murtagh, two lads who in their heads ask ‘why aren’t they starting’. It’s competition, lads.

“That’s the new wave coming, these young lads have been successful all the way up, let’s do it. Now Ben’s under pressure, because Ciarán came on, and Donie came on. We’re realistic, but it’s a good start, a really positive start, but at training there needs to be hair and skin flying, that’s ultimately how it works.”

Still only 22, Cregg also hit 1-5 in the Sigerson Cup first round win over Munster Technological University. He’s in his third year of a dairy business degree at UCD (his father Gerard runs a 80-acre dairy farm in Boyle).

Roscommon beat Galway twice in Division Two last year, by five points in the group encounter at Dr Hyde Park, Galway already sure of promotion, and by a point in the final.

Galway got some revenge however when beating them in the Connacht final, and are bidding for their first win at Pearse Stadium after drawing with Mayo in the opening game.

They’ll be meeting a renewed Roscommon challenge now that the likes of Cregg and O’Carroll are nailing down starting places. Burke’s policy of selecting players purely on form and not reputation has helped the county get off to a winning start at least which, as other years have proven, is more than half the battle for Roscommon.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics