Salvage mission: Roscommon and Mayo under pressure
BY late September 2001, Galway were All-Ireland football champions, Mayo were League champions after winning a title where all four semi-finalists were from Connacht, Roscommon were Connacht champions and Sligo had twice sampled Croke Park in mid-summer.
That left Leitrim as the west's only strugglers, but, on the basis that a surging tide lifts all vessels, they were hoping to capitalise on Connacht's improved fortunes. It had, of course, been a historic season for the province as Galway became the first county to win the All-Ireland, via the qualifiers. And since Mayo had beaten them in the League final, they were wishing they could fastrack into 2002 and a summer showdown with their high-riding neighbours.
Roscommon were equally ambitious, having won a first Connacht title for 10 years. Nor was it an ordinary success, as their victims were Mayo and Galway, making Roscommon the first team in GAA history to have beaten the reigning League and eventual All-Ireland champions in the same championship.
Unfortunately for them, Galway re-grouped smartly in the qualifiers and were a more potent force when they next played Roscommon in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Still, Roscommon did have a title to show for the season and a whole lot of optimism for the future.
As for Sligo, they had lost to Mayo by a point before beating Kildare and losing to Dublin in the qualifiers. Progress was very definitely reported in Yeats country. Truly, a giddy season out west.
Ten years on, how will the Connacht landscape look in late September? Galway have completed a dismal championship for a third successive year, bombed out of contention in early July after dropping to Division 2 of the NFL for the first time in 14 years; Sligo shed much of the momentum they had built up over the last few seasons when losing to Leitrim in the Connacht quarter-final after being relegated to Division 3; while Leitrim failed to end the qualifier jinx which has lasted for all 11 seasons in which the new system has been around.
That leaves Roscommon and Mayo as the joint-standard bearers for a province where nothing illustrates as accurately how its stock has devalued in recent years more than the All-Ireland odds currently available on the finalists.
Both Mayo and Roscommon still retain their second chance lifeline, but the markets, which are usually solid indicators of underlying trends, have nonetheless placed them further down the pecking order than several counties who have already lost a game.
Mayo are on 33/1 for the All-Ireland, while defending Connacht champions Roscommon are 50/1. Disregarding the usual line-up of fancies like Kerry, Dublin, Cork and Tyrone, it still leaves both Connacht finalists out of the top eight (Mayo) and the top 11 (Roscommon).
Apart from the top four, Ulster finalists Donegal (14/1) and Derry (25/1), plus Kildare (9/1) and Down (22/1) are all ahead of Mayo, who are pitched alongside Leinster pair Meath and Wexford, both of whom were beaten at provincial level. Roscommon are further back still.
Basically, it suggests that few believe that Mayo or Roscommon have any real chance of coming remotely close to winning the All-Ireland which is all so very different to that summer of 2001.
Roscommon endured some traumatic times for several years afterwards, but have got their ambitious house very much in order nowadays and are a work in progress as they carefully plot their way up the national standings. As of now, they are doing so as Connacht champions and against a background where there's a belief that the fundamentals are solid for further expansion over the next few years. Others may doubt them, but Roscommon have total faith in what they are doing.
Their underage structure is solid and productive -- indeed, it's regarded as probably the best in Connacht -- so, while Roscommon can't compete in terms of numbers with Galway and Mayo, they are making good use of their resources. It started with the All-Ireland minor-winning squad of 2006, a group which looked pretty special at the time. They beat Galway, Mayo, Tipperary, Meath and Kerry to win a very competitive championship and immediately raised the spirits in a county whose headlines over the previous few years had been mostly negative.
The bad times continued at senior level, but there was always a feeling that the class of 2006, when merged with the best of the more experienced players such as Karol Mannion, Michael Finneran, Seanie McDermott and Senan Kilbride, could be the catalyst for a dramatic change of fortunes. And when Fergal O'Donnell, who managed the 2006 minors to success, agreed to take over as senior manager in the autumn of 2008, it marked the end of Roscommon's love affair with outside bosses which had lasted for nearly a decade.
Less than three years on, Roscommon are attempting to win their first Connacht double since 1990-91 amid a sense of genuine conviction that they are building an impressive empire. Historically, Roscommon's best periods have come in clusters, as in 1943-47, 1952-53, 1961-62, 1977-80 and 1990-91. Now, the hope is that they are on the upswing stage of another successful cycle.
Retaining the Connacht title would be a significant development in the advancement of the squad, which makes tomorrow's game probably even more important than last year's breakthrough win over Sligo. Besides, Roscommon know that their status as Connacht's top dogs won't be fully recognised until they beat Mayo or Galway in a final.
In the land of eternal optimism that is Mayo, there's almost always a feeling that they are ready to blossom, but it has grown increasingly difficult to maintain it as a going concern. The return of John O'Mahony, complete with a deserved reputation as one of the best manager's in Gaelic football history, in '07 was supposed to provide the crucial last piece in the green and red jigsaw, but not even his expertise could find a way to eliminate Mayo's destructive habits.
One Connacht title from three attempts was the best Mayo managed under O'Mahony and even then, they failed to make the required step up to All-Ireland level, handing Meath victory in the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final after appearing set fair for a win.
Last year was particularly disappointing after a promising start where Mayo reached the NFL (Division 1) final. But they were demolished by Cork, which created a hangover that carried into the championship where they lost to Sligo and Longford. O'Mahony decided it was time to go. The man who had guided Leitrim to their first Connacht title in 67 years in 1994 and led Galway to two All-Irelands in '98/'01 had become the latest to find the Mayo puzzle unsolvable.
Still, the search for a solution will always continue and now it's the turn of James Horan to try to locate the formula which will end an All-Ireland famine that has reached its 60th year.
He has certainly gone for change. Of the 19 who played against Longford in last year's qualifiers, only eight will start tomorrow. That's quite a turnover, but he wouldn't see it as a risk on the basis that there was no point persisting with a squad that had failed previously.
The big question is whether the new balance is any more secure than its predecessor. On the basis of the performance against London and the first half against Galway, the answer is a resounding 'no'. But Mayo were much better in the second half against Galway and will be hoping it was the turning point.
Not that beating Galway, a pastime that some very moderate teams have happily indulged in over recent seasons, provides convincing evidence of advancement. That's why Mayo fans will head for Dr Hyde Park looking for a level of performance which is not only good enough to win Connacht, but also flash out a signal to the other contenders that the west cannot be ignored.
Sadly for Connacht, it's not regarded as a serious force anymore, even if it can boast as many All-Irelands as Leinster over the last 15 years.
However, compared to where it stood a decade ago, Connacht is in bail-out territory. There's no way of knowing how long it will remain there, but some indication will emerge from tomorrow's final. Roscommon need to win to show that last year's success wasn't down to lucky circumstance in that they avoided Mayo and Galway.
Mayo need to win to kick-start a new drive towards the level that makes them genuine All-Ireland contenders. As for Connacht football, it needs a high-quality game to prove that the standard hasn't drifted back to the disappointing levels of the 1980s and early 1990s when the champions were seen as lightweights in the All-Ireland race.
It hasn't quite reached that stage yet, but the graph has been heading in that direction in recent years. Can Mayo and/or Roscommon prevent further decline?