Kevin McStay: sliding doors moment has worked out very well for Roscommon

Scenes from Salthill on Sunday showed the best side of the provincial championships

Roscommon’s Enda Smith lifts the Nestor Cup. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Roscommon’s Enda Smith lifts the Nestor Cup. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

I left RTÉ after the Sunday Game and made it back to Roscommon town shortly before one in the morning. The doors were open to all houses and the streets were busy and merriment was general.

It’s funny. In a year in which many people, including myself, have been advocating for a new order which would probably see the end of the provincial championships, it’s as if the old rivalries have been mocking us.

This year’s Connacht championship has been one big surprise and Roscommon have been at the heart of it. So they enjoyed Sunday night as much as any Connacht winning year.

The build-up to the game had been odd for me. I met Derek McGrath, the former Waterford hurling manager, a few weeks ago. We agreed that being “the ex-manager” is a surreal existence. Because people see you and automatically still link you with the team and ask you about things as if you are still there: in the dressing room, at training, on the phone to the players. What they don’t realise is that that phone is dead: the cord is cut. You don’t even have the number. You know a bit more than the guy on the street – but not much more!

So I was driving up to RTÉ on Sunday morning wondering about the Roscommon substitutes – who would they bring in; in what scenario would such and such work? Two years ago, that was my decision. Now, I was just guessing like anyone else. You go from a situation where you know everything about these lads – their exams, their partners, their car problems, their tractor problems, their work aspirations. And then one day it is the sound of silence. It is over.

Roscommon’s Cathal Cregg celebrates after beating Galway to win the Connacht senio football championship. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Roscommon’s Cathal Cregg celebrates after beating Galway to win the Connacht senio football championship. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

The point is: the week reminded me that I am outside of that bubble. And we do not know what is going on inside that group. There’s a (bleak) saying: the train you don’t see coming is the train that’s going to kill you. And what we don’t know is how hungry and hurt and desperate Roscommon were for this victory. We can only guess at their internal motivations and belief.

So on Sunday, I was headed east and all the cars with flags were setting out – early – for Galway. There was great excitement around the county. It felt different to 2017, which was a win that came as a massive surprise. That final was supposed to be the implosion of us as a group. On Sunday, Roscommon people felt that if a few things worked out, then a good result was a strong possibility.

And part of me would have loved to have been on the bus as the man leading that charge. But then you remember the eight months of unglamorous slog on the field, the constant stress of thinking and thinking about the team – I would fall asleep convinced I had to drop X and then wake up absolutely certain that X was the man to drive midfield.

It is always, always on your mind. It runs your life. And it is worth it: if you win. That is the killer bit about a final. For Anthony Cunningham, all of the mental and physical hours he has put in are worth it this week. And for Kevin Walsh, the question is: what now?

The expectation to win is ingrained in Galway and Mayo minds. It just is

How good are Roscommon? They were decent in the opening quarter and then lost their energy and enthusiasm in that second period. They had a brilliant third quarter and maybe just hung on to see the game out. So it was a good performance but also one on which they need to build. I thought Hubert Darcy and Colin Compton did extremely well when introduced: they were significant substitutions.

It was a puzzling day from a Galway perspective. I felt that as a management, they needed to figure out the Roscommon full-forward line. And they didn’t. They didn’t contain Diarmuid Murtagh (1-3), Conor Cox (0-4) or the general influence of Enda Smith.

I think what is lost sometimes is this: there is a hierarchy in Connacht. Roscommon are the pesky neighbours to Galway and Mayo. What that means is that the expectation to win is ingrained in Galway and Mayo minds. It just is.

I had Galway up there in my list as contenders prior to this year’s championship. And I know how the squad must have felt on Monday morning. I would have a lot of empathy for them – my people are from Galway.

Cathal Cregg celebrates a late point. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Cathal Cregg celebrates a late point. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

I think it’s clear that the Galway public has never loved this set up and that media people have gone after Kevin for the way they play. And I’ll say this: Kevin is a very decent human being. He was a marvellous footballer. And stand back at look at his record. Galway had no Connacht titles since 2008 when Kevin took over in 2015. That is a massive gap for the brand leader in the province. Kevin came in and he broke the Mayo monopoly. He has won two Connacht titles, reached All-Ireland quarter-finals; an All-Ireland semi-final; a national league final.

But the general negativity goes back to this defensive formation that Galway have favoured. Why do you suppose he does that? Well, he knows that in order to thrive, a team must have defensive solidity and organisation. That became their calling card.

The criticism directed at Kevin and Galway is predicated on the belief that this system is stifling Galway’s creativity and attack and that any team that wants to win an All-Ireland has to show more ambition and thrust and get more players further up the field. Does nobody ever stop to think that Kevin Walsh knows this better than anyone? We don’t see what he sees at training. We don’t know what happens if Galway defenders are left exposed in one-on-one situations, isolated against their direct opponent.

We don’t know this because Kevin hasn’t allowed it to happen in competitive games. There may be a good reason for that. He can’t ever come out and say it. He can’t say: hey, I can’t leave these guys on their own or we’ll get cleaned out. But maybe that is the reality.

Within the context of this final, the answer as to why Galway collapsed in the second half is not immediately obvious. Leadership and intensity is too simplistic. But Damien Comer, Paul Conroy and Ciaran Duggan are big physical presences and they were missing through injury. Fintan Ó Curraoin had to leave the field with an injury. It can be hard to win big games when significant players are out. But the nature of the collapse has to be worrying for the management group.

You have to give massive kudos to Roscommon. They blew the game open in six minutes after half time

There wasn’t a man in Roscommon who felt confident of victory at half-time. But, astutely, Colm Cooper noted on the Sunday Game, you just can’t back Galway to tidy a game like that up: to finish it off. The easiest answer, of course, is that Galway are just not quite good enough.

It is going to be a tough week in Galway football land. The group needs to stick tight this week and next. Because they can win a round four qualifier and get back on the horse. But I believe yesterday ended their chances of a long summer. The confidence is being drained from the group and what little support there is among the public will likely evaporate.

Conor Cox and Tadgh O’Rourke goe past Thomas Flynn. Photo: Tommy Grealy/Inpho
Conor Cox and Tadgh O’Rourke goe past Thomas Flynn. Photo: Tommy Grealy/Inpho

I thought Kevin looked tired and a bit haunted. And I recognised that look. You can see Brian Silke’s frustration and this recognition of: “God, this is gone from us again”.

The cold stats are alarming. Four of the Galway forward line taken off. Two points in 44 minutes; outscored 1-8 to 0-2 in the second half. The first point of the second half only arriving 21 minutes into that half. The second, a 45, when the game was into injury-time. Kevin will be disappointed, frustrated and livid.

Against that, you have to give massive kudos to Roscommon. They blew the game open in six minutes after half-time. Galway were 10 for 11 from shots taken in the first half. In the second, they had nine shots and scored two. Roscommon were 50 per cent in the first half. But in the second half, they were nine scores for 11 shots. The halves were mirror images statistically.

In slightly different circumstances, Roscommon could now be a three-in-a-row team this week. The confidence this win brings – a three-week rest and a first Super Eights game at home against a round four qualifier – is inestimable.

What was lost in the commentary is that Roscommon had nine new starters from last year’s final. Niall McInerney, Cathal Compton and Ciaran Murtagh were not available to Anthony and they would be automatic picks if playing to full potential. Roscommon now have a defensive mindset and a desire and a feeling, surely, that they must belong in elite company.

The two teams I would hate Roscommon to meet between now and the end of the year are Mayo and Galway

The challenge now is to perform and compete at that highest level. People forget that Roscommon had agreed on a new manager prior to this season. Then he withdrew his name. And then Dublin hurling went in a different direction and Anthony became available. It was a sliding doors moment and it has worked out very well for Roscommon. Sport can be funny.

So where can Roscommon go with this? Five Connacht finals in four years mean they are not newbies. They have two titles out of four attempts, which is above the Rossies’ mean average. The challenge now is to perform but it may not be this year that we see the best of this group.

The two teams I would hate Roscommon to meet between now and the end of the year are Mayo and Galway. Mayo, in particular, are just more grizzled and experienced.

Roscommon’s massive ambition for 2019 would be an All-Ireland semi-final. So when can they burst through this glass ceiling and dream the impossible with conviction? Well, when they perform and compete seriously at the Super Eights level.

They are in a different space now and the championship is opening up for them.

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