Monday 5 December 2016

Dream team has Rossies on the glory trail

Christy O'Connor

Published 08/04/2016 | 02:30

Joint managers Fergal O'Donnell and Kevin McStay have been central to the upturn in
Roscommon fortunes (SPORTSFILE)
Joint managers Fergal O'Donnell and Kevin McStay have been central to the upturn in Roscommon fortunes (SPORTSFILE)

When Kevin McStay was installed as the Roscommon joint-manager last autumn, he outlined the primary context for him taking the job.

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He was 53. He had the energy and enthusiasm for the challenge. McStay had lived most of his adult life in Roscommon. His three daughters were passionate Roscommon supporters.

McStay was a proud Mayo man but, in comparison to how his face had never fitted for their top job, he was a perfect fit for Roscommon - like tongue and groove panelling.

"Why," asked McStay, "should it be anywhere else?"

A key part of making it happen, though, was McStay's partnership with Fergal O'Donnell, whose fingerprints have been smeared across everything positive attached to Roscommon football for over a decade as a coach and manager, and much longer as a player.

Ciaran Heneghan, O'Donnell's club-mate and former inter-county team-mate, once said that, whenever Roscommon needed a boost on the field, the easiest solution was to give the ball to O'Donnell.

In different circumstances, the exact same theory applied to him as a manager and a joint-manager with McStay.

Beyond the softness of his voice, O'Donnell always had a huge level of ambition and desire that synchronised perfectly with McStay's goals and ideals.

O'Donnell managed the minors to the 2006 All-Ireland title, Roscommon's first for 55 years. Nine years after captaining Roscommon to the 2001 Connacht title, he managed the seniors to the 2010 title.

After stepping away from the seniors, he returned with the minors and led them to the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final.

The same season, McStay had guided St Brigid's to a historic first All-Ireland. For a team on the move, everyone associated with Roscommon football expected the McStay-O'Donnell joint-ticket to take them somewhere.

John Evans had done great work in steering Roscommon into Division 1 but the manner in how they bombed in last year's championship suggested they needed to go in a different direction.

Liam McHale arrived with McStay as coach. The remaining part of the management apparatus was constructed around an impressive backroom and logistical framework.

Evans had spoken about Roscommon winning All-Irelands but the new management's only early goal was to stay in Division 1.

That meant initiating a brutal early-season fitness regime, which began last October with some hellish long running under David Casey.

Some key players missing from last season - Fintan Cregg, Conor Devanney, Geoffrey Claffey and Seanie Purcell - returned.

And when the management had assembled the strongest squad in the county, they demanded absolute and total commitment from everyone. They have got it.

Travelling from the depths of Division 4 to the top four of Division 1 in such a short time has been accelerated by the huge level of young talent available.

Last week, Roscommon were narrowly denied a fourth Connacht U-21 title in five years.

Dedicated

The brilliant work of a dedicated group of coaches have produced a talented generation and the only target Roscommon haven't reached is winning an All-Ireland title.

They lost the All-Ireland U-21 finals to Dublin in 2012 and 2014. Tyrone, eventual winners, defeated them in last year's U-21 semi-finals.

Roscommon were also narrowly defeated in All-Ireland minor semi-finals in 2011 and 2013 by Tipperary and Tyrone respectively.

Apart from the 2014 All-Ireland U-21 final defeat to Dublin, not having a strong enough panel was a key factor in Roscommon failing to win many of those other matches.

Aside from some concerns around midfield, this squad has plenty strength in depth.

Belief has never been an issue for young players who have grown up in a culture of underage success. The vast majority have come through the development squad system.

The team which started against Dublin last week had an average age of 26. Nine of the starting 15 were 25 or older but five of the U-21 team are key players and the squad has the ideal blend of youth and experience to push forward.

Roscommon are trying to get ahead in every way possible.

The primrose and blue bus, which carries all Roscommon teams, is another metaphor for a team, and a county, intent on going places.

The story behind the bus began one evening in a pub in Roscommon town over a pint and a cup of tea.

Thomas Carthy, a successful businessman, threw out the idea to David O'Connor, chairman of Club Rossie, the commercial and fundraising arm of Roscommon GAA.

The concept of the bus, first leased in 2014 for the purposes of saving money, was initially met with derision.

With just one full-time county GAA coach and no training facilities, there were greater priorities than a big set of wheels.

Yet the leasing costs were met through the benevolence of a number of sponsors and drivers offered their services for free, leaving fuel the only remaining charge.

But the acquisition of the bus was about far more than the bottom line of saving costs. It is a statement of intent, a symbol of a whole new level of ambition. That commitment to Roscommon football has been reflected right across the board.

When Roscommon qualified for the 2012 U-21 All-Ireland final, one of the fundraising ventures in place was a €2 text competition to guess the final score. Now, it's big much bigger business.

Club Rossie is run by a well-organised and successful group of people. Their membership span is so wide now that it includes two different packages (gold and bronze), with each member entitled to varying numbers of entries into a €30,000 cash draw.

Club Rossie have set a target of selling 500 gold memberships at €228 each. Other business packages are available at €800 a pop.

Brand

A huge fundraising drive is planned for New York in the near future, primarily to create sufficient funds to finally address the much-publicised Dr Hyde Park problems.

Roscommon have everything except facilities, especially training facilities, but addressing Hyde Park has become a priority. Everything else is in place to match their enterprise, commitment and talent.

Kerry at Croke Park on Sunday will offer a more accurate barometer of how far Roscommon have really travelled.

The championship will tell how far they can go but this is definitely a county on the move. And with the ideal co-drivers positioned at the wheel.

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