Galway have good reason to be wary of unyielding Roscommon
History shows the Rossies can never be taken for granted in the Connacht championship
Roscommon manager John Tobin, celebrates at the end of the game after victory over Mayo in the 2001 Connacht final at Dr Hyde Park. Photograph: David Maher/Sportsfile
It would be a mistake to describe Roscommon as the fly in the ointment. They have too much hauteur – those back-to-back wartime All-Irelands, those gilded clubs teams, those 23 provincial titles – to be considered mere upstarts.
But they do delight in tripping up the landlord counties of Mayo and Galway. They delight in bucking history and supposition. This year’s primrose vintage have already derailed Mayo’s best chance of progress to an All-Ireland final. Sacking Galway in Salthill would make for a memorable June.
“Galway are raging favourites,” says John Tobin by way of caution. “The same as they were two years ago.”
If you want to remember the full heat of the provincial championships, go back to the day in 2001 when Tobin brought his Roscommon team into Tuam Stadium. It was another one of those Galway-Roscommon occasions when a maroon win was preordained.
Instead, the visitors delivered a 2-12 to 0-14 performance which had a silencing effect across the land. It was the first year of the new qualifier system and technically, Galway’s summer was still alive. But it didn’t feel like that to anyone on the afternoon of June 3rd.
Or if you want to understand the power of emotion and the significance of provincial wins, then flash back three years earlier to 1998 and to the few minutes when Galway have edged Roscommon after a replay – and after extra time – to provoke a pitch invasion of ecstatic fans. Hear John O’Mahony’s voice crack with emotion on the television interview and try to imagine, in that moment, a future in which the provincial system would be deemed defunct and pointless.
That replay took place as late as August 2nd: all summer, ‘getting out’ of Connacht had been the driving ambition. Or if you want to return to the scenario in which winning a Connacht title could feel like a moment of liberation, then revisit the circumstances in which Roscommon won the 1990 version.
Beaten in 1988 by Mayo in the Connacht final. Beaten again by Mayo in 1989 – after extra time – and watching then as Mayo did something strange by threatening to win the All-Ireland itself. In 1990, Roscommon put their hands up again.
“This was the third year in a row and there was a lot of pressure on,” remembers Martin McDermott, who managed the team through a spell of six consecutive Connacht final appearances,
“It was really time to deliver for the players and myself. And I could feel that tension in the players because they knew to lose three Connacht finals in a row would not be pleasant for them or the supporters. Fergal O’Neill, Galway’s corner forward, from memory, was deemed to be in the square and had a goal disallowed. We were tentative. It was only in the second half that we relaxed a little bit.”
Those games are the primary colours with which Roscommon’s role in the west of Ireland scene become identifiable. Few counties have had such a rigidly difficult task – particularly in the 100-odd years of knock-out football – as the Primrose. John Tobin can laugh now when he is asked where that coup in 2001 sits in a lengthy reel of personal achievements.
“It was bittersweet. I am from Tuam, like. I think I managed Galway on three occasions and managed a minor team to win an All-Ireland and the U-21s for over 30 years. But people always refer to me as the Roscommon manager. It is funny. It’s intriguing. You just fortify yourself. Anyone who goes into management has a moral responsibility to get them to optimise their collective potential and realize the dream. You know? It is a dream. You appreciate that privilege because of the contribution of those fellas to the county. It is fantastic. But beating your own county on your own patch . . . is a different thing altogether.”
The irony was pronounced that day: Tobin, Tuam bred, ran the line for Roscommon while O’Mahony, from Ballaghaderreen, managed Galway. It was a match in which Galway played an inhibited game by their expansive standards while Roscommon just hit song. Eddie Lohan scored 0-8, Frankie Dolan hit two goals and a teenage Seamie O’Neill was rampant at midfield.
“I kind of knew the potential he had so from a long way out we wrapped him in cotton wool,” Tobin says of O’Neill.
“We kind of put him away for a while and didn’t play him in a lot of league games because he was young and immature but we knew his potential. And again, it depends on the person, but Séamus has a strong personality and young fellas sometimes have no inhibitions. It doesn’t faze them that they are walking a star. And Kevin [Waslh] and Seán Ó Domhnaill were outstanding midfielders.”
Galway’s tentative behaviour in that game was all too human. There is an easily believable alternative GAA history in which 1998, Galway’s flaming All-Ireland year, never happened. It would have been a shame, not least because Pat Comer, the Galway substitute goalkeeper and film-maker was making A Year Til Sunday that summer and might well have scrapped the project had the team been dumped in the Connacht final.
And fate could easily have turned things that way. The teams drew 0-11 apiece in a taut first game in Tuam.
“I don’t know if it had something to do with the noise of the crowd,” said Gay Sheerin, the Roscommon manager, afterwards.
“I’m playing a long time and haven’t experienced anything like that. When we ran out, the din was unbelievable.”
There’s a scene in Comer’s film in which O’Mahony challenges the Galway players to shed the disparaging tags that followed them during that period – a ‘nice’ team; a team of ‘Fancy Dans’.
The trouble was, they knew that Roscommon would not be for backing down. So it went: a riveting, draining replay which stretched into extra time and hinged on a Michael Donnellan goal which came down to bad luck more than anything else. The event became, for Roscommon football, one of those summers when they almost stamped out their neighbours only to then see them ascend and ascend into a football place that no west of Ireland team had reached in over 30 years.
It’s not that difficult to forward the theory that the main obstacle to Roscommon’s progression is geographical; penned into Connacht means that they have to produce exceptional teams in order to overcome both Galway and Mayo. Conquer one and usually, the other is waiting. Roscommon are like the kid brother who charges into the older, stronger siblings without fear or consideration for his own safety or welfare.
“ Size, yeah,” says Martin McDermott.
“We pick from a population that is a third the size of Mayo and less than a quarter than that of Galway. I do genuinely think we pull above our weight. It is a constant battle. And we don’t fear it but it is a big step because we do not have that depth of numbers. As someone once said, the more milk you have, the more cream you have.”
It is easily forgotten how close McDermott’s Roscommon team came to making it to an All-Ireland final. In 1991, they successfully defended their Connacht title –again after a replay made possible by a stupendous, 60-metre free by Derek Duggan in the last minute of the first game. In the All-Ireland semi-final they made all the running against a gnarled Meath team until the closing quarter, when the Royals began to knock over points and feed on the finish-line nerves of the newcomers to edge it by a point.
“We led for most of the game and were most unfortunate to lose by one point. The McManus’s, Killoran, Newton, Earley: all household names at the time. And we came very close and probably should have beaten Meath on the day. They were probably a little tired but they had that quality, stickability.”
In 2001, John Tobin’s team capitalised on that sacking in Tuam by beating Mayo in the Connacht final. Their reward was dubious. A quarter-final draw put them back where they started, facing Galway, this time in Castlebar.
“Yes. And therein lies a question: what is the championship? This was a David and Goliath situation,” Tobin points out.
“ On a given day, you can get any result. It was a fairytale. But then you are after winning and find yourself back at the same place and you question yourself. So you are always wondering what was going on in our fellas’ minds, as much as you try to create the environment that makes it attractive. Plus, we had won the Connacht championship for the first time in a few years. Sometimes success can be difficult to handle. You are on a high but you have to back to the coal face again.”
But they never go away. Two years ago, Roscommon came into Salthill to play Galway in a Connacht final. They were managed by Kevin McStay, who had tormented them in a previous life as an elusive corner forward with Mayo. All reliable data pointed to a Galway win. It made no difference.
“I will be the first to put my hand up and say I got it wrong,” says Tobin.
“ I really thought Galway would win that game. But then, going back to my own time in playing them, all through the 1970s, Roscommon have this combination of perseverance, resilience, a fighting spirit and they were always difficult to beat.”
That historical fact carries into Sunday’s latest chapter in Salthill. It’s all circular. Val Daly, who scored 0-8 in that 1990 final, has two sons playing for Galway tomorrow. Seamus Killoran was midfield that day; his son Shane occupies the same position tomorrow. Galway are expected to win just as Mayo were expected to win a few weeks ago.
“The situation is very similar to what happened two years ago except it must be foremost in the minds of the Galway management and players,” says John Tobin. “They have been forewarned.”
Even so, they know what’s coming if it’s Roscommon: volatile and unpredictable and unyielding to the last.