Midfield the key as Roscommon aim for historic double over Galway

Former midfielder Séamus O’Neill urges Rossies to lay down a marker in league final

Most Roscommon fans of age will have little problem remembering Séamus O’Neill’s one-handed catch and two long-distance points against Galway in Tuam in 2001 – all wins over their neighbours are savoured and the details retold.

It’s not often though that Roscommon beat Galway twice in the one season, it’s been more than 60 years in fact since they last pulled off the feat. Sunday’s league final presents an opportunity to beat them twice in two weeks. History, however, isn’t on their side.

Eight weeks after their provincial semi-final win over Galway in 2001, Roscommon were beaten convincingly by the same opposition in the All-Ireland quarter-final in Castlebar.

The last league final meeting of the two neighbouring counties came in 1981 – a year after the Rossies were beaten in the All-Ireland final – when their Division One league decider ended in a 1-11 to 1-2 win for the Tribesmen.

In April 1961, Roscommon enjoyed a one-point win over Galway in Salthill, and then followed up that league victory with a Connacht final triumph four months later against the same opposition

Remarkably despite their competitiveness in championship fixtures, last Sunday’s win was just a seventh in the league against Galway since the resumption of the competition after the second World War in the 1940s. This weekend Roscommon will look to do it again, while Galway will be closer to full strength and keen for instant revenge.

Green grass

One man who knows all too well about lining up against a vengeful Galway side is O’Neill - man of the match in that Connacht semi-final in 2001. Aged 19 playing at midfield.

"If Roscommon win on Sunday it'll be a massive, massive win for them and will bring massive confidence," the Kilbride club man told The Irish Times. "It's a league title, it's silverware, it's that little bit of buzz the players will have after the game. You have got to get that belief in lads that they went to Croke Park and won against a big team."

“Roscommon football is in a good place but we are in Division One now next year and we will have to compete. To win big games and Connacht championships and All-Irelands. It is a big step, but you can’t look beyond the next team you’re playing.”

Next year will be a fifth season in eight that Roscommon will be playing in the top tier. A win on Sunday would mean a fifth league trophy since 2014, to go with a Division One semi-final appearance in 2016 and two of the last five Connacht titles.

“Your football career is short, you’ve got to take it while it’s there. If Roscommon want to do anything later on in the year or next year moving on, I think they have to lay down a marker on Sunday.

“Roscommon are not blessed with going to Croker every year and bringing home something. They’ve got to go at this game, take them on the way they did here at the Hyde last Sunday and go for it. It doesn’t matter if it’s Croke Park or Hyde Park, it’s all green grass.”

In 2001, Roscommon won the Connacht championship after reaching the Division One semi-final. The following year they topped the table and again reached the knockout stages, in 2003 they were beaten by Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final. From 2005 onwards, however, things went downhill fast.

“We had to beat Galway and Mayo who were very strong and knocking on the door for All-Ireland titles but I think that was a brilliant team and we should’ve won more.

"Galway were an excellent team in 2001, people say we caught them on the hop in Connacht but we still had to beat them. We had different managers then who came in with different ideas and it kind of upset the team, we lost five of our key players as well in 2005, which was a big loss to us.

“We lost Shane Curran, Nigel Dinnen, Francie Grehan, Frankie Dolan and Mike Ryan. We had Francie at centre back and he got an All Star in 2001, and he was dropped in 2005 and it shouldn’t really have happened. It kind of upset that team at the time and things just didn’t work out for us after that.”

In the eyes of most Roscommon fans the county haven’t produced a natural midfielder of O’Neill’s calibre since he hung up his county jersey for the last time in 2012. The biggest change to this year’s team, however, sees Eddie Nolan and a fully fit Ultan Harney form a new look partnership in the middle. The dynamic pair have scored 0-7 between them.

In the previous two league campaigns Roscommon’s midfielders managed a combined 2-4, with 2-2 coming from Enda Smith - now in the half forward line - and one of the two points was provided by Nolan.

Belief

“Since Karol Mannion went really, we’ve been struggling in the middle for a while. Eddie Nolan has come in this year and is athletic and there’s a lot of football in him but we need to be working that more and he needs to be driving forward. Ultan is very strong on the ball and is very attacking and goes at players. But going forward is he going to be your ball winner in the middle of the field?

"Galway and Mayo have big lads like Paul Conroy and Matthew Ruane and you've got to have physical lads to match that and we have struggled there for the last five years or more. So it's up to Eddie and Ultan and Keith [Doyle] now to do it."

Known for his eye-catching fielding, O’Neill reveals some of the secrets of the trade.

“I would love to be playing now with the mark, because when you win the ball you have your free, in my day when you came down with the ball you were nearly killed with three bucks around you.

"It’s such a nice feeling to go up and catch a ball in the middle of the field, Keith Doyle came on the last day and went up and caught a ball and you could hear the crowd applaud it – it’s nice like you know. It’s your possession, it’s jour primary job, to win that ball.

“You have to believe in yourself – if you think to yourself you’re going to get this ball, you have to just go for it and get it. You have to be strong to wrestle with other lads under it and throw them out of the way but it’s hard to get up off the ground without getting three or four steps and to get a run at it. And then the big thing is if you can hold yourself in the air for that couple of seconds before the ball comes down.

“If you can use the opposition lad’s shoulders it helps too if you don’t get caught. Get up early and hold yourself in the air - nine times out of 10 if you get a clean jump you’re going to catch it.”

In April 1961, Roscommon enjoyed a one-point win over Galway in Salthill, and then followed up that league victory with a Connacht final triumph four months later against the same opposition.

It’s been a long wait for such bragging rights since – two wins in championship or league in the same season – but in one clean sweep they could also go some way towards making up for 1981 and their last meeting in Croke Park.

With the possibility of the two meeting a third time in this May’s provincial decider, the Rossies could even go one better.

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