My favourite sporting moment: Roscommon minors restore pride to a county

2006 All-Ireland win brought success when it was least expected and needed the most

In the summer of 2006 Roscommon crashed out of the championship, beaten 1-19 to 0-9 by Meath on a scorcher of a day in Navan. Cathal Cregg, with a full head of highlights, had scored three early points in his first championship start, buzzing off the ground, before everything fell apart.

My cousin Philip was heading for Trim well before the final whistle was blown, and he wasn’t alone. An all too familiar scenario at the time. This was the first year of the post-Sean Boylan era for Meath, they exited the qualifiers in the subsequent round, beaten comfortably by Laois. But in July 2006 they looked a team 10 years ahead of the Rossies in every aspect of their development, and that was a scary prospect.

League football at the time consisted of facing Leitrim, Longford, Clare, Carlow and London. None of the county's best players - Frankie Dolan, Nigel Dineen or Francie Grehan - were involved. And so, for all but the hardcore fans, club football became the main attraction. As for that year's minors? They'd done nothing at Under-16 level and had barely won a Connacht league or challenge game.

My Dad's generation would often complain they hadn't seen Roscommon compete in an All-Ireland final in 24 years. Aged 14, I barely recalled watching Roscommon win a match. Having grown up in England I missed out on the 2001 Connacht win, and by now the mad adventures of 2003 were a distant memory. The usual conversations filled the journey home, would the big names return? And is any youngster ready to make a difference? Little did we know that a few weeks later a group of 17 and 18-year-olds would rediscover the entire county's self-esteem in a whirlwind three months, culminating in my favourite sporting moment.

Empty expectations

My Dad was one of the few fans who braved the rain and empty expectations at Dr Hyde Park for the Connacht minor semi-final against Galway. He came home raving about how young David Keenan used his body under the restarts, the kicking ability of Donie Shine, the never say die attitude. But the luck too, as Galway kicked wide after wide and their goalkeeper fumbled a shot from distance into his net. Paul Conroy and co would make amends the following year as the Tribesmen claimed national honours - but they'd have to wait their turn.

With little else to write about after the senior team's early season exit, the final against Mayo became top priority in the local papers. A game in which Shine - still in his first year at the grade - announced himself with a free-taking masterclass. The sort of one he'd repeat in 2010 to inspire Roscommon to a first provincial senior title in nine years. In 2006 his late flurry of points ended a remarkable 14-year wait at minor level. Regardless of age, there was no footballer in the county who could strike a ball like him. Glorious repetition, his little show pony trot as he stepped up to kick a free became such a reassuring cue for us in the stands. He barely missed, especially from distance.

Roscommon had introduced an Under-14 development team for the first time at the start of the year, and we played our first tournament against Meath, Kildare and Longford on the morning of the All-Ireland minor quarter-final against Tipperary in Tullamore. Willie Hegarty is well known in GAA circles as a local radio commentator, but he's also the Roscommon GAA games manager, and it was in that capacity that he took charge of our squad.

A team which included current Irish rugby outhalf Jack Carty and future senior players such as Colin Compton, Ciaran Murtagh and Ciaran Cafferkey - we won that tournament in some style. Never one to filter his emotions, an excited Hegarty told us and our parents afterwards that "Roscommon underage football was going to be the envy of the country". If we applied ourselves, in four years times we'd be the county minors lifting silverware. The flame was lit.

You mightn’t want to be relying on his artistic radio commentary for your match notes, names and scorers - but when Hegarty spoke to us that morning not only did his words stick, but they were accurate too. Over the following 10 years Roscommon would win three Connacht minor titles, four at the Under-21 grade, one minor All-Ireland and reach two Under-21 All-Ireland finals.

Meath on the other hand, well that year’s minor team were as good as they’d produce over the same period, and the Royals were up next for Roscommon after a nine point win over Tipp.

The All-Ireland semi-final was the curtain raiser for one of the great games of Gaelic Football: Mayo v Dublin. When Mayo dared to warm up in front of the Hill, and Ciaran McDonald twirled his left footed wand to bring Dublin to their knees. The minor game wasn't half bad either, after a shaky start Conor Devaney nailed a penalty and the Rossies never looked back. Devaney is the only player from that 2006 squad currently involved with the county's senior panel - albeit 17 of them went on to play senior championship football for the Rossies.

The clamour for tickets for the All-Ireland final against Kerry was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory stuff. These teams were opposites in so many ways. Fergal O’Donnell’s Roscommon side were the sum of their parts - their appetite for work was infectious, they tackled like ferrets and played with fearlessness, intensity and passion.

Towering

Kerry on the other hand were a towering team, with a number of standout individuals. Shane Enright and Johnny Buckley both started in that final, but the trio who dictated the terms were midfielders David Moran and Tommy Walsh and Paddy Curran at full forward. Particularly the latter two.

A late David O’Gara point brought this terrific clash of styles to a replay - in Ennis a week later - but Roscommon would have to make changes. Curran had scored eight points in Croke Park, six from play. His man was taken off after 19 minutes. Walsh that day - without any exaggeration - caught more than 10 kickouts. I’ve yet to see a fielding display like it at any level.

Still over 20,000 mainly Roscommon fans packed Cusack Park out - I was again between my cousin and Dad. This was such an honest team and there was a sense that they’d earned the unconditional support of the Roscommon people.

Another cousin, Keith Waldron was one of two changes to the team for the replay as Niall Carty also came in. Both had been returning from injury and their introduction allowed Fergie to make his game-winning match ups. Shine on Walsh, and Paul Gleeson on Curran. The latter was held scoreless, entirely nullified, and while Walsh still kicked two points and caught some spectacular kickouts he in no way dominated the match as he had in the drawn game.

Playing into the wind in the first half the Rossies trailed by a point after kicking more than twice as many wides and missing a goal chance. A fortuitous O’Gara goal swung things back in their favour inside the opening two minutes of the second half, and they did push on and work and tackle and harry relentlessly - but they missed chance after chance too. Allowing Kerry to reclaim the lead heading into the final 10 minutes.

But this Roscommon team didn’t panic or feel sorry for themselves, they knew no other way than to play full throttle and Kerry eventually buckled under the pressure. Despite the physical mismatches, Roscommon swarmed the middle third and came away with restart after restart in the closing stages.

Alan O’Hara from St Michael’s - one of the smallest clubs in the county - came on and kicked a crucial point before Shine scored the final three of the contest. One of which, on the turn from the edge of the D, was a thing of beauty. No more so than watching Fintan Cregg working himself to a standstill to get back and protect his backline, or the fullback line contesting every single pass like their lives depended on it.

And so much did depend on it. Roscommon were at a crossroads in 2006 and those young men were the ones who not only made history but showed the way for the generation that followed. I’ve never seen my Dad overcome with pure joy like it, my cousin had left us before the final whistle once more. But this time to get down to the wire and be one of the first on the pitch.

Bonfires and supporters lined the main road by our clubhouse, and every man, woman and child was in Roscommon town that night to welcome the team home.

Wild emotion - success when it was least expected and needed most. An unforgettable memory.

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