Under the radar Roscommon could end Mayo’s hopes

Defending Connacht champions have barely been discussed and that could well suit them

Anthony Cunningham has been through it all at all levels and has sights set high for Roscommon. Photo: Evan Logan/Inpho

Anthony Cunningham has been through it all at all levels and has sights set high for Roscommon. Photo: Evan Logan/Inpho

 

Roscommon people could be forgiven for wondering if they have a team in this year’s All-Ireland championship. They must be the least spoken-of defending provincial champions of modern times.

The build-up to this weekend’s Connacht semi-finals has been understandably dominated by the withdrawal of Sligo because of Covid-19 cases within the squad. Galway’s blazing form in the first part of the season, coupled with Mayo’s slick and powerful statement win in Tuam in late October, quickly reduced the Connacht championship in the minds of many to a straightforward battle between the big two.

As ever, Roscommon is the middle child. The lesson of last year’s Connacht championship, in which Roscommon beat both Mayo and Galway to win their 24th title, has either been forgotten or discounted. That’s why Sunday is such a dangerous game for Mayo.

“You will get your chances against Mayo,” remarked Roscommon manager Anthony Cunningham last summer.

“They are very strong defensively but you will get goal chances. In Castlebar we took them. They are quite an attacking team so they will leave chances. For us it was just really to have a go at them. On the flip side they are very potent up front.”

Cunningham was speaking ahead of Mayo’s All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. By then, Roscommon had exited the championship, finishing the Super 8s with a win over Cork. Mayo, meanwhile, had done their resurrection act after losing to Roscommon by 2-12 to 0-17 in May.

The quality of Roscommon’s achievement didn’t fully register on the national radar. It was a Saturday game in late May, when the Mayo engine can be notoriously temperamental. But it was also Roscommon’s first championship win in Castlebar for 33 years. In Cunningham, Roscommon identified someone who was able to double down on the impressive development by Kevin McStay, who oversaw the 2017 Connacht final raid (also in Salthill and at Galway’s expense), and publically encouraged his squad to see themselves as an elite tier team.

Consistent

There is a list of county teams out there in the exact same place, either vying for promotion from Division One or trying to establish themselves in Division Two. But Roscommon have been the most consistent of those challengers.

Acquiring Cunningham to succeed McStay was a shrewd move by the county. The Galway man has retained a curiously low-key profile despite a long and high octane career. If his playing career is indelibly died up with the back-to-back All-Irelands he won on the celebrated Galway hurling team of 1997/98, his coaching career is a pamphlet to diversity. Provincial football titles with Garrycastle and St Brigids and All-Ireland success with the Galway under-21 hurlers alongside his time as Galway senior hurling manager which revolved around two harrowing All-Ireland final defeats, in 2012 and 2015, against Kilkenny.

If it’s a stretch to say that Galway should have won in 2015, they certainly could and Cunningham would describe the circumstances of his leaving the position afterwards as “soul destroying”. And GAA management is a merciless business: two years later, Cunningham would watch his former team and county get over the line and achieve the coveted All-Ireland.

When he took charge of Roscommon, he was trying to implement his ideas while coping with a bruising experience in Division One in 2019. Roscommon shipped 10-92 on their way to being relegated. Mayo, meanwhile, won the league title. That was why precisely nobody expected anything when they met in Castlebar last summer. Roscommon went ultra-defensive and forced Mayo into kicking 15 wides as well as their 17 points. It was an exercise in frustration and it worked. But in the Connacht final against Galway, they trailed 0-10 to 0-5 at half time and needed something different. Cunningham pushed Cathal Cregg into a more attacking role and it was his brilliant solo run that set up Diarmuid Murtagh for the goal that turned the game on its head.

“He has really instilled that edge, that belief in ourselves,” Cregg said that day. “Maybe in the years past we would have given up when things were going against us and would have conceded goals. I suppose the defensive side of thing, he has really shaped that up. He just gave us that belief.”

Unheralded and unnoticed

In addition, he recruited Conor Cox, the burly Kerryman whose talents had not persuaded the selectors in his native county. He played league for the Kingdom but never championship. By the end of last year’s Connacht final, he had fired 1-40 in league and championship. If Roscommon’s maiden experience in the Super 8s had been harrowing, then last summer they finished with a 4-9 to 3-9 win against Cork. Travelling to Croke Park was becoming part of their season. And in this long, interrupted year, they have been a model of consistency, emerging from Division Two and gaining promotion, unheralded and unnoticed.

They beat Cavan in Breffni Park in their closing league game despite the absence of Cunningham and 13 panel members because of Covid precautions. It was perhaps the most significant sign of the change: a settled squad, an adaptable team able to play on the cuff and clearly surging with self-belief.

What it all means is that Mayo will feel something of an ambush about them when they land into the empty Hyde Park tomorrow. There has been a glimpse of a new Mayo this winter, with fresh, exciting players supplementing the cast of indispensables. It promises much. But it means that Mayo are still figuring themselves out even as they run out to meet a settled, physically maturing Roscommon team who know themselves much better than they did a year ago - and who have a Connacht title to defend. And they are facing a manager who has been through it all, at all levels. Proceed with caution.

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