Roscommon hoping sun will come out this summer
County’s league form has been a revelation but it is championship success that will matter most
Roscommon manager Fergal O’Donnell is hugged by Ciarán Murtagh after the county’s impressive league win over Kerry at Fitzgerald Stadium last month. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho.
On his journey home from Letterkenny last Sunday evening, Paul Staunton happened to bump into Donegal player Ryan McHugh at a petrol station. As they refuelled, the Kilcar man remarked upon the fitness levels of the Roscommon players whom he had spent an hour chasing after.
Eamonn McGee, the Donegal full back for the match, had made a similar observation following the match, noting that the Rossies played with such a high intensity that “your tongue is out after 10 minutes”.
Like all Roscommon GAA people, Staunton is thrilled to be following the senior team through this year’s league. Comparisons between Roscommon’s fearless assault on the heavyweight teams of Gaelic games and Leicester City’s dauntless drive towards the English Premier League title are fashionable.
They aren’t quite accurate, though. Rossie fans are not mistaking this fine league run for imminent All-Ireland glory. Nor do they see Roscommon success in the fantastic light which forms the backdrop of Leicester’s story. Roscommon, in the truest sense, is a big football county.
In 2004, Stephen Banagher, the county chairman, contacted Staunton and asked him to become involved in the establishment of a development structure for young players. Staunton had kept goal for the Rossies in the early 1990s.
“I’m a former player. Once you are living in Roscommon, you are aware of how important football is here. It is what we live and breathe for. There is no getting away from that. And we were struggling. We went a few years without a minor win. We were struggling to even compete with Sligo and Leitrim, let alone the perceived superpowers.
“I was born in the mid-1960s. So in the late 1970s you had four Connacht titles in a row and an All-Ireland under-21 success in 1978, a national league in 1979. You grew up seeing Roscommon teams successful on the national stage. In 1981, we won the Connacht minor title. In 1982, we contested an All-Ireland under-21 final. In 1984, when I played minor, we won Connacht. In 1989 we won Connacht. So we were winning. And then, all of that just stopped.”
Roscommon won Connacht senior titles in 1990 and 1991 and then a minor title in 1991. Between 1982 and 2010, they won just one Connacht under-21 title, in 1999. There wasn’t much to shout about when people like Staunton and Ciarán Heneghan, another former player, got to work.
The group of under-16 players which Staunton assembled in 2004 became the nucleus of the 2006 Roscommon All-Ireland winning minor team under Fergal O’Donnell.
Five years later, O’Donnell was in charge of the Roscommon senior team which was relegated to division four with just one win in division three. They suffered several one-point swings and a few hammerings: 2-20 to 1-10 against Cavan on opening day, the 0-20 to 0-13 against neighbours Sligo in the match which secured their eviction. This was no bad Roscommon team: Seán McDermott, Ian Kilbride and Cathal Cregg, who were in storming form last Sunday, all featured in that relegation game. Donie Shine, a sensational figure in that 2006 minor campaign, had been their lead scorer all season.
But Sligo, under Kevin Walsh, were the talk of the west that year and they backed it up by beating both Mayo and Galway in the championship. Then they met Roscommon in the final. The Rossies won 0-14 to 0-13: it was their first provincial title since 2001.
“I think everyone knows there was degree of luck in that the team was relegated to division four and then won Connacht by beating division four teams,” says Shane Curran. “We haven’t beaten Mayo in a league or championship game since July 2001. That is a hell of a long time.”
Throughout the loudening fanfare of Roscommon’s spring season, there has been general acknowledgement of the contribution which John Evans made to Roscommon football. The Kerry man took over when the senior team was division three material and, nationally speaking, an afterthought.
He led them up through the divisions in successive seasons, from three to one. But that spring form did not translate into summer success and he stepped down after last year’s championship qualifier defeat to Fermanagh. Among those he thanked in his statement were “the wonderful, dedicated players who dared to go where others felt they should not tread”.
“Ah listen, I would be a personal friend of John Evans and I would feel sorry for the way it happened,” Fergal O’Donnell told John Lynch of Northern Sound shortly after he took over in the autumn of 2015.
“He is a great worker and anyone who was told when it took off that Roscommon would end up division one . . . I think at the time they would have taken that. Probably unfortunate that the Fermanagh game, coming on the back of the Sligo game and people felt that it was time for a change. But I would say that John Evans wasn’t on the pitch for the last 50 minutes. Players have to be accountable for their performance as a well and they will have to look back at that and say was that a true reflection of the work they did over the year.
“But John did great work and his management team and there is no doubt that was disappointing for them. And I’d have huge sympathy and I would feel they were entitled to another year but unfortunately that is the way it worked out and we’re there now and we just have to work with it.”
Shane Curran was one of those who voiced reservations at the way Roscommon played under Evans but admired the his open ambition for the county.
“He did a really good job in raising the profile of the senior team and the ambition of the county board, in particular. And also in getting resources for the team. He served the county very well in that regard. But we have turned into a different beast now and that is because of the management that is there now.”
The former Roscommon goalkeeper worked at close quarters with Kevin McStay and coach Liam McHale during St Brigid’s All-Ireland winning season in 2013. Curran’s senior intercounty career spanned two decades and he is absolute in his conviction that Roscommon football has landed a gem in securing the two Mayo men.
“Fantastic men, for a start, but their coaching is second to none. They have a very thorough concept of how they want the game to be played. They have a very deep intellect on the game but also on how players operate on an individual basis. Liam would be very supportive of players. Kevin’s highly analytical. And I would say Fergal has possibly moulded his coaching beliefs and brought it closer towards theirs.”
Both McStay and O’Donnell have tried to sound a note of caution through the din of enthusiasm. After winning in Donegal, McStay said that it was their best achievement as he wasn’t fully certain of where Kerry and Cork had been at when they met. He also acknowledged that Donegal are at an early stage of their training programme.
Mayo are a hard read right now too. It is a full four months until the Connacht final, regardless of who contests it. The Mayo that Roscommon may meet in the summer – and they can only meet in the Connacht final – is going to be a different team to the Mayo they meet in Hyde Park on Easter Sunday. A lot can change.
Roscommon has a turbulent recent history when it comes to management. John Maughan’s period in charge ended in 2008 and was characterised by the fractious criticism from a small section of the support unhappy with indifferent league results. Not long before him, Gay Sheerin, a huge figure in Roscommon football, stepped down following a championship defeat to Leitrim. John Evans’s league form wasn’t enough to shield him from the dissatisfaction over summer results.
Roscommon’s current form is bound to heighten expectations in the championship. But it is hard to shy away from the fact that Roscommon are playing such an entertaining brand of football that they have neutrals everywhere rooting for them.
“Yeah, it is free flowing and free spirited with an emphasis on kick passing and long-range scoring,” says Curran.
“You know, there will be days when these things fall down because of the nature of the core age group of the team. But they give the players this platform and they trust them. There will be days when it doesn’t happen but the blueprint is there. The players have bought into it.”
Roscommon’s recent 1-16 to 2-10 win over Galway in the under-21 championship leaves them on track for a third consecutive Connacht title. The Rossie’s recent domination of this grade is the most vibrant symbol of their underage work.
“We are doing okay. I wouldn’t be losing the run of ourselves, “says Paul Staunton. “There is no 10-year plan. For us, it is about producing players who are ready physically and psychologically to be available, in time, to go and compete for Roscommon.”
There will be slip ups and reality checks. In fact, Mayo may well provide the first of those next Sunday. Against that is the fact that just now, Roscommon are playing football with a sense of abandon and confidence that seemed to be in danger of belonging exclusively to Dublin.
“They make you feel good watching them,” says Paul Staunton.
It is a good time to be a Rossie. The county has a population of just 64,000: like Monaghan in Ulster, they have become a model for what is possible. Little wonder the locals are thrilled. If their team keeps this streak going, they may not even notice Leicester winning the league.