Eugene McGee: Rossies give us a breath of fresh air
Connacht football finals rarely get the hype or exposure of the other three provincial showdowns but yesterday was all so different. Roscommon came from the depths of depression in the recent National League to storm their way to their 20th victory in a Connacht final.
The game was already unusual because of the fact that for the first time since 1947 neither Galway nor May were in the final but what unfolded in Castlebar was scarcely what we had expected, which was a close, unspectacular contest.
What we actually got was one of the best games of football for many years at this level and with a huge shock result at the end of it all. Roscommon, with five of their All- Ireland minor team of 2006, simply tore the form book to shreds in the first half with their devil-may-care approach to the contest and almost swept Sligo, who have survived three hard games against Galway and Mayo, off the pitch.
To their credit, Sligo regrouped for the second half and provided us with truly dramatic and spectacular stuff that restored one's faith in the old game.
There were wonderful scores, terrific high catching and outstanding free-taking from the youthful Donie Shine, who amassed a staggering 10 points and could even afford the luxury of missing another four frees.
The 24,000-odd crowd in the magnificently refurbished McHale Park were fortunate to see one of the great games of this or any other year -- a game devoid of cynical play but laced instead with all-out endeavour and fanatical dedication in pursuit of victory. This applied to Roscommon from the throw-in but many Sligo players seemed to have been consumed by the hype of recent weeks and the notion that Roscommon could not possibly win.
This was a serious flaw in Sligo thinking because for decades the relationship between these two counties is that, no matter how the form is, Roscommon usually beat Sligo in the Connacht championship.
Obviously, Roscommon manager Fergal O'Donnell built on this belief with great effect and, as a result, Sligo were chasing shadows for most of the first half.
Roscommon's two wing-forwards, David Keenan and Cathal Cregg, were the foundation of that early success, along with their massive midfielder Michael Finneran and two other high catchers in that area, Karol Mannion and David O'Gara.
This left Roscommon with a huge supply of possession which yielded an impressive 10 points by half-time. The man who won the game for Roscommon was full-forward Shine with an amazing 0-10 from frees and play and his presence caused pandemonium in the previously watertight Sligo defence.
With Keenan and Cregg roaming far and wide, there were acres of space and the scores came freely for Roscommon.
After the break, Sligo did tighten their back-line and confined their opponents to just four points in that half, all from Shine and three from frees.
Sligo eventually replaced their original starting midfielders, which told its own tale, and only a series of incredible long-range points from Alan Costello enabled them to level the game with time almost up.
But inevitably the Sligo backs, under pressure, conceded yet another close-in free which Shine pointed to send the Nestor Cup back to Roscommon in truly dramatic fashion and of course secure his side a place in the last eight of the All-Ireland championship.
As far as Roscommon are concerned, fairytales do come true and after all the misfortunes that hit the county in recent years, on and off the field, few can begrudge them this amazing victory, especially when we consider the style and panache these mainly young players displayed.
Even their own followers were not very optimistic about Roscommon's chances this time but that is the wonderful thing about Gaelic football -- the ability of a bunch of young men to change the whole demeanour of a county in 75 dramatic minutes.
And how Roscommon people at home and abroad will enjoy the next few weeks as they await their place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. The inspirational legacy of the late Dermot Earley must have filled McHale Park yesterday, a ground where the great man gave some of his own finest performances.
Sligo need not be very downhearted about this result and facing Down in the qualifiers next Saturday gives them a sporting chance of making the last eight. They probably took Roscommon for granted a bit which handed the first-half initiative to their young and inexperienced opponents -- and boy did they make full use of it.
At a technical level, the total failure of Sligo players to get a proper supply of the ball to star corner-forward David Kelly was the main reason why they lost this game, as he is usually good for five or six points in a match -- but not this time, thanks to the adventurous and courageous play of the Roscommon backs, who ensured that supply to Kelly was cut off.
But, regardless of the result, we will all remember this game as a wonderful sporting contest, full of local pride and passion, laced with magnificent scores from play and deadly free-taking as well as as a game played in a positive spirit, with little of the massed defence so many people detest.
It might have been a blast from the past in Castlebar but even the young people in attendance will be crying out for more of the same and less of the tactical strangleholds which so many managers use to destroy this noble game.