Tuesday 25 July 2017

Glory hunt replaces drop fears for rising Rossies

From relegation favourites to likely semi-finalists: McStay's men on a roll

Cathal Cregg, along with Fintan Cregg and Ciarán Murtagh, have contributed 6-48 during Roscommon’s league campaign. Photo: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile
Cathal Cregg, along with Fintan Cregg and Ciarán Murtagh, have contributed 6-48 during Roscommon’s league campaign. Photo: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Customers at Down The Hatch pub on Church Street, Roscommon are drinking to better times.

They talk a lot about football in 'The Hatch', which is unsurprising since the host is Séamus Hayden, a warhorse midfielder from a time when Roscommon came close to winning the All-Ireland title.

They rattled Kerry to the core in the 1980 final, leading by 1-2 early on, before being reined in by the best group of players to play football. It was Roscommon's last appearance in a senior All-Ireland final and, in the intervening 36 years, they have won only four Connacht titles.

So when John Evans suggested last April that Roscommon could win the All-Ireland inside a few years, he was accused of putting ambition before reality.

Resigned

When it was followed up by championship defeats against Sligo and Fermanagh, Evans' popularity waned, even if he had presided over promotion drives from Divisions 3 to 1 in successive seasons.

He later resigned, leaving an attractive vacancy, now filled by Kevin McStay and Fergal O'Donnell, in a joint venture. Their short tenure has produced the most noteworthy feat of the season so far, with Roscommon dismissing their pre-league rating as leading relegation contenders to find themselves on the verge of qualifying for the semi-finals.

Depending on other results, their eight points may already be enough but one more point from their remaining two games would certainly clinch a Croke Park date on April 10.

It's a great position for Roscommon, made all the more exciting by having Mayo and Dublin coming to Dr Hyde Park on successive weekends. In addition, the U-21s play Mayo in the Connacht final next Saturday.

Giddy times indeed for Roscommon, where Evans' optimistic prognosis for the future is beginning to resonate a little more than it did last summer.

Ever the realist, Hayden leaves the hype to his clientele and deals in hard-nosed assessment.

"It's easy to get carried away and think the good days are definitely rolling in, especially after the wins in Kerry, Cork and Donegal, but things are never that simple. I'd know Kevin and Fergal well and they're certainly keeping things calm.

"Like us all in Roscommon, they're delighted with the way the league has gone but it's only a start. It has to be about keeping momentum going now, especially in the Connacht championship. That will decide a lot," he said.

Still, it's hugely exciting for Roscommon to have re-positioned itself at the higher end of the market just five years after being in Division 4. Three years ago, they failed to get out of Division 3 but have since powered through the gears to a lofty slot where only Dublin are ahead of them on the league table.

Roscommon's transformation has been built on good planning and hard work at juvenile and underage level over many years, the fruits of which are now evident.

Still, few expected that they would do so well in this year's league but, apart from an unlucky first-round setback against Monaghan, it has been success all the way.

And how! They won in a tight squeeze against Kerry, hit Cork for 4-25, beat Down by nine points and then posted 1-19 against Donegal, who had conceded an average of 12 points in their previous four games.

Ciarán Murtagh, Fintan and Cathal Cregg have contributed 6-48 (4-26 from open play) between them in a game plan that seeks to exploit Roscommon's attacking strengths to the maximum.

"We've known for a good while that we have very talented forwards, lads who will test the best defences. I thought we were sucked into being a bit negative for the last few years but it's different now. It's all about getting the ball into the forwards and they've done the rest," said Hayden.

It has hoisted Roscommon to top of the Division 1 scoring parade, making them very exciting to watch.

However, there are concerns about the defensive side of their game and with a Mayo team desperate for points at the relegation end of the table and high-flying Dublin next up, there will be a lot of focus on how the backs and midfielders cope.

It was assumed before the start of the league that tomorrow's game would have been between a Mayo team in the top half of the table and Roscommon opposition battling against relegation.

Instead, the roles are reversed and, in another delicious irony, Roscommon are jointly managed by a Mayo man whose native county weren't especially keen to avail of his services.

It's the first Roscommon-Mayo league clash since 2001 and comes at a time when the Connacht champions are trying to crank up after a slow start to the season.

One win from five games has inevitably raised questions about Mayo's wellbeing, although Hayden believes that they are unlucky not to have a few more points.

"They played well against Dublin and Donegal but got nothing out of it. They're near the bottom of the table but don't forget what they've done over the last four or five years. They're one of the top sides in the country, They can come good at any time," he said.

Still, he wonders how long more they can maintain the same energy and commitment levels, without winning an All-Ireland.

He has personal experience of how difficult it can be to drive on year after year, before coming up short in the end.

He was part of a Roscommon squad that won four successive Connacht titles in 1977-80, only to miss the All-Ireland boat. They were favourites to beat Galway in the 1981 league final but lost heavily on a day when it looked as if time had caught up. It had, and it was another nine years before Roscommon next won the Connacht title.

"Nothing wears you down like going to the well all the time and never coming away with a full bucket of water. Mayo know all about that. They deserve huge credit for coming back every year to win Connacht titles but you wonder how long they can keep doing that," Hayden reasoned.

The fervent hope in Roscommon is that if Mayo are to be pushed over, they will be the ones doing it.

However, Hayden notes that while the main focus is on Mayo and Roscommon, Galway are quietly building too.

"They'll be delighted to see so much talk of Mayo and Roscommon. I fancied Galway last summer. It didn't work out but I still think they will be dangerous this year," he said.

Tomorrow's Roscommon-Mayo game will have as much of a championship feel as a league clash can in what many believe is a rehearsal for the Connacht final.

Mayo need the points more than Roscommon, although it's important for the home side to maintain momentum. And all the time, anticipation continues to rise.

"Roscommon is a football-mad county. We're enjoying what's happening but we're realistic enough to know that it's only a start," said Hayden.

Irish Independent

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