Roscommon’s band of brothers braced for a long campaign
A Connacht title is the primary aim for John Evans’s talented, tightly-knit squad
Some of the brothers on the Roscommon panel. (L-r front) Cathal and Finbar Cregg, Ian and Senan Kilbride, Diarmuid and Ciarán Murtagh. (Back) Enda and Donnie Smith, Ronan and Niall Daly, Photograph: Brian Farrell
John Evans keeps referring to what a close-knit bunch his young Roscommon panel are. But when you consider that 13 of his players have at least one brother involved in the set-up with them, it’s hardly a surprise.
The term band of brothers is often used in a figurative capacity, but this particular group of course don the term for a far more literal reason; this is a young team who have progressed together through the underage ranks experiencing unprecedented success and now as seniors share a unified aim.
That aim is to win a first Connacht title since 2010 this summer. Beyond that; “who knows”.
At one point in Roscommon’s last competitive game, the Division Two league final triumph over Down in Croke Park, there were seven brothers on the field.
Each of the five families of brothers involved in the panel bring their own dimension to the group, some such as the Smiths having just one year separating them while for others such as the Cregg brothers the senior grade has been their first opportunity to play alongside one another.
While most of the current squad have witnessed little less than multiple underage successes, Cathal Cregg has witnessed the good times and the bad.
A double Sigerson winner with DCU and a Connacht senior medalist in 2010, last summer’s International Rules panellist has enjoyed his own successes but he also knows how it felt to be wallowing in Division Four less than five years ago.
“I suppose it’s been coming for a couple of years, probably since a bit before 2010,” says Cathal who was joined by his 22-year-old younger brother Finbar in the panel last summer.
“Around that time it started getting a lot tighter and there were a lot of young lads coming through, a lot of the 2006 minor team would’ve came through together.In the last few years that’s continued with Finbar and the Smiths and the couple of Dalys and these lads coming through from the different underage teams which has obviously tightened it up even more.
“Once a group of players get on well and are close off the field, there’s a good bond in the dressing room and that will obviously show on the field as it has done over the last 18 months.”
Underage teamsDavid Keenan
Most of the rest of the panel played in either the 2012 or 2014 Under-21 All-Ireland final defeats.
Ian Kilbride, like Cregg, is another one of the group’s more experienced players. A club All-Ireland winner with St Brigid’s in 2013, Kilbride says that team contained three sets of brothers including himself and Senan, a normal number of family ties for a rural club team.
“Five sets of brothers is very unique for a county team,” says the older of the Kilbride brothers. “We started to notice it when they were giving out tickets for matches and the brothers were getting less tickets because there are so many of us. It is very unusual but there’s a homely feel to it.”
Unlike most of the panel’s siblings who would find noting their similarities far easier than their differences, Ian’s all action approach in defence and Senan’s languid left footed style in the inside line reflects almost polar opposite traits.
“We’re very different, he’s the talent, he’s definitely the talent whereas I’d be a lot more reliant on hard work” says Ian. “You’d’ be very surprised if you saw me up looking for a pass off him. If I’m even up that far, something would be very wrong.
“There’d be the odd match in training that I’d mark him but it’s never anything that bad, we’re both physical players but he’s very big now so I wouldn’t be reverting back to the bullying tactics of when we were teenagers anyway. He’s gone far too big for that.
“We would be very different though and we’d prepare quite differently, I’d like to talk a good bit leading up to games, trying to bounce stuff off him but I suppose he’s quieter, he knows exactly what he needs to do.”
Things couldn’t be more different in the Smith household where the little and large duo’s almost telepathic link up play in the forward line has been key to not only the majority of the county’s two Connacht minor titles and four under-21 triumphs in the past five years, but also to DCU’s Sigerson victory earlier this year.
While the pair mightn’t share the same physical traits – Enda is 6ft 3in and equally capable of holding his own in the middle of the field – both are noted for their clever kick passing and interplay.
“There’s only a year between us so we’re playing together since under 10, which leaves us in the fortunate position of knowing each other’s game inside out,” says Donie.
“If he’s playing out the field and I’m inside he’d know exactly where to kick the ball when I’m running for it.
“Even with the club, I’d say well over 70 per cent of the scores we get the other would be involved. It comes mainly from kicking ball out in the garden for years, and I suppose it’s similar with all the brothers. They all have their own skillsets.
Donie and Enda are also joined by older brother Cian who is involved with assisting the team’s goalkeeper coach. Cian was a member of the 2006 minor panel and had been involved in the senior set-up before illness forced him to prematurely hang up his boots.
The other two families carrying a trio of brothers are the Murtaghs and the Dalys.
Niall, Conor and Ronan Daly are all at their most comfortable operating in a wing back position while Diarmuid and Ciarán Murtagh are both corner forwards.
“There’s just two years between the three of us so when we were younger there were big games out the back of the house,” says Niall Daly who won a Sigerson title and Cork senior championship during his time with UCC.
“So we’d be very competitive, we’re all fighting for a similar spot and the team is very tough to make this year so we are all trying to nail down the position and that comes first.”
While older brother Niall has often been tasked with holding the defence in the number six jersey, particularly in the absence of the injured David Keenan, all three would be seen as attack-minded wing backs with outstanding endurance levels; a half forward’s nightmare.
“We’re aware that our main job is defending,” says Niall, “but we do like to attack and get scores, we all enjoy seeing our name on the scoreboard.
“It’s certainly a help having the two lads there, when the training is hard you can pull each other along, and it’s the same in a game, the same idea trying to give each other a lift. But there’s a lot of lads in the panel of a similar age and we pull well together and we know the way each other plays too which does come in handy.”
Meanwhile two of the three Murtagh brothers are fighting for similar positions in the forward line, while the eldest of the St Faithleachs trio, Brian, is competing for a place with the Dalys in the half back line.
Brian was first brought into the panel under previous manager Des Newton having impressed en route to securing the under-21 Connacht championship in 2010, while Diarmuid and Ciarán were brought in last year.
“It’s easier going to training, getting up for early morning sessions and all these things when there’s the three of us. It’s a lot easier even shortening the journeys by having a bit of craic in the car.
“We’re all relatively new to the panel but one of us would have played with nearly everyone before so there’s a strong bond there.
“When I wasn’t involved last year and the lads were I was mad to get back, when you see the brothers doing well of course you’re delighted but you want that yourself too, so it can be very competitive.
“Ever since we picked up a ball it was our individual ambition to play for Roscommon, and the fact that the three of us are playing now together is obviously great, but that’s more for the parents and the family. In years to come I’m sure we’ll look back and be delighted but there’s not much of a sentimental factor there at the minute.”
It’s a game they insist they won’t be taking for granted, though most of the squad are unaware of the challenge that awaits.
“I’ve been over there twice but most of the lads haven’t” explains Cregg.
“It’s a tricky fixture, It can be an intimidating atmosphere, you go in and the Irish tunes are blaring out from the pub above the dressing room and there are an awful lot of people very close to the windows which you wouldn’t typically get in intercounty grounds.
“There’s obviously a lot of drinking too, and it’s all happening in and around the dressing rooms so it can be very off-putting.
“We’re focused on London and we don’t want to get caught on the hop over there but I suppose a Connacht title is the aim and what we’re hoping to achieve.”
Beyond that Cregg and the Roscommon band of brothers are harbouring dreams of competing at “the highest level on a regular basis”. A stage which Ian Kilbride thinks the county have more than earned.
“The young lads coming through are used to this acclaim and status with all the underage titles. But for the older players like myself and Sean McDermott and Cathal Cregg it’s kind of new territory for the most part. But were loving it and we feel like we’ve really earned it.”