For all the talk of provincial competitions smoking out on dying embers, last weekend they produced a spark that lit the flame for the 2023 football championship. From the Bronx to Castlebar to Ennis, none of it felt like a fading of the light. Far from it.
There was some commentary over the weekend suggesting supporters will spend the next six weeks watching games that mean nothing. If you speak to people from Roscommon or Clare today, they might have a different take.
And for me, the number of spectators in New York epitomised what these games represent. It goes beyond football – they provide a tangible link and allow folk maintain a strong culture of identity.
From that point of view, it was a very good weekend for the provincial championships. I don’t agree with this whole air of negativity around the provincials, because what’s the alternative? We don’t have them, and so we fight for two cups instead of six? That doesn’t make sense for the development of the game.
The jury is still out on the new All-Ireland format purely because nobody really knows yet how it will unspool, but we do know what championship football looks like – it’s everything on the line, it’s no tomorrow, teams playing with an edge, hunger, desire, passion – and all of that was on show last weekend.
So, people who have been calling hard for an end to these competitions need to pause, because once something is gone, it’s gone forever. There is so much history attached to them and, even if they might not mean much to some commentators, they absolutely have a place in the hearts and minds of supporters and those involved in coaching and playing the games.
Imagine waking up on Monday morning as a Roscommon player. The best of times. Sunday was near perfect for Roscommon in terms of their tactical preparations and in terms of their mentality. But I still felt Mayo missed a trick. More of that in a little bit.
Roscommon were ready physically, ready mentally – they were ready for the battle in the lion’s den. They were at it from the first whistle and had all the energy and desire. They fought for every ball, won balls they possibly shouldn’t have, attacked their own kickouts, were brave on the breaking ball, and they had an incredibly well organised defensive structure.
They also bucked the trend in terms of what is going on nationally, because they were able to make meaningful contact consistently on Mayo. A lot of teams now are standing off, waiting for the opposition to do something before they engage. Roscommon went after Mayo.
One of the highlights from their display was how disciplined they were in the tackle. It’s one thing to make contact but it’s another to make physical contact and not give the opposition seven or eight handy scoreable frees. They struck that balance really well. Globally, they played for each other, covered for each other, fought for each other, and crucially for them they turned Mayo over time and again.
Aidan O’Shea’s goal chance was a prime example. He was immediately swarmed by Roscommon players, as if somebody had opened a jar of honey beneath a hive of players in primrose and blue.
O’Shea had nowhere to go. That doesn’t happen by chance, you can’t arrive at a stadium and just switch that on. Listening to Davy Burke after the game, he mentioned Roscommon felt “disrespected”, so I’ve no doubt they were using that to fuel the fire within.
The displays of players such as Enda Smith and Diarmuid Murtagh were inspirational. Enda is so athletic and he showed great composure throughout. I remember seeing Diarmuid a few years ago and thinking this kid could be anything, but surprisingly he has been in and out of the team over the last number of years. On Sunday he showed how much of a class act he can be, but more than anything this was very much a team performance and victory.
As for Mayo, they will look back and wonder if they could have done things differently. They played with the wind in the first half but immediately on the throw-in, which Roscommon won, Mayo dropped to a half-pitch press. They dropped off Roscommon and got no pressure on the ball. You were wondering, why are they not going after them really hard here? Forty-four seconds later, with no pressing, no contact, the referee spotted a foul inside and Roscommon got their first score on the board.
On the Roscommon kick out, Mayo pressed hard and were successful. But they are two very different things, and a passage of play that really highlighted this came early in the first half. With seven minutes 40 seconds on the clock, Roscommon were in possession and Mayo were on a half-pitch press, basically sitting within their structure and not going after their opponents, even though they were playing with a strong breeze. Mayo were waiting for Roscommon, which was perfect for the visitors because that’s exactly what they wanted, away from home, against the wind, they could count the clock down.
There was no tackle until the first one came after 11 minutes and nine seconds. Midway through the play there was a mini heave in the middle of the pitch, but for almost three minutes and 30 seconds there was no tackle – that’s a hell of a long time in championship football. And contact only came about because Roscommon ventured inside and went at Mayo.
The elements played a significant role in this game, but you have to be flexible and adaptable. In the second half Mayo went with a full-court press and Roscommon struggled to get out with the ball. Had they gone with such an approach in the first half, would we be talking about a different outcome?
Also, given the conditions and with Mayo playing with the wind in the first half, should Cillian O’Connor have started? Roscommon appeared to fine-tune their game based on the conditions but Mayo didn’t seem to deviate from what they had planned.
Perhaps they should have thrown caution to the wind and said, “you know what, maybe we should stick Cillian in.” Because he is such a good finisher and with the breeze at his back all he would need to have done is fire the ball up in the air and the wind would have done the rest.
Conversely, if you look at Roscommon, Conor Cox came off the bench and brought real energy and purpose. He got turnovers, gave them oxygen when they required it and kicked a crucial score.
Mayo will also be disappointed by the concession of goal chances, because they didn’t spot the early warning sings and pull down the shutters. In the 23rd minute, again after a long phase of possession, Niall Daly made a strong incision, David Murray backdoored Jordan Flynn in the Mayo defensive line and ultimately they won a penalty.
It was a huge moment in the game because if you go in at the break a point up, level, or a point down, especially against a breeze like that, you are in a good spot, but that first goal actually propelled Roscommon forward hugely and validated everything they had done up to that point.
It was clear Roscommon had a ploy because they had tried to backdoor earlier in the half too when Ciarán Murtagh played it in behind, but the forward didn’t read the play and the ball went out over the endline, so the warning signs were there.
For the second goal Mayo got caught again with the same tactic. Donnacha McHugh, their young corner back, didn’t read the run of Ciarán Lennon early enough and again the Mayo defence got backdoored resulting in the initial shot being saved but Donie Smith seized on the rebound with a volley. Having received two previous warnings, this really is a goal Mayo should not have allowed happen.
It was a great day for Roscommon, but I was left asking myself, where does all this leave Mayo? I don’t subscribe to the theory they will benefit from a decent break now before the All-Ireland series because nothing beats winning, especially if you are a new manager trying to cultivate a winning mentality within a group.
Mayo finished the league with so many positives, they found new payers, Tommy Conroy returned, Aidan O’Shea looked rejuvenated, and they were one of the best conditioned sides around. Coming out of the league, there was a general feeling they were the top team in the country on current form.
So, Kevin McStay will have spent Sunday night tossing and turning in his bed, wrestling with what happened – a common predicament for Mayo managers for years.
The hype and expectation has been replaced by a severe dose of reality. The challenge now is for Kevin to manage that because, for all the positivity of the league, he’s actually back in the very same place as all of his predecessors, wondering, “how do I lift these lads again and get them over the line?” And those last five words are the most important ones – get them over the line.
We know Mayo will respond, because that is what they have always done, but what we don’t know is if they are good enough to go all the way. In that regard it’s not so much about getting over the line, it’s about crawling over that line. A line that has haunted Mayo for longer than they care to remember.
That line might be metaphorical, but it’s also very bloody real. And Mayo aren’t any closer to crossing it after Sunday.