Roscommon are determined to rise again after last spring's false dawn
A week away from the National League's resumption Roscommon's footballers are wiser to the ways of Division 1, appreciating more than most how the strain of survival can exact a hefty toll. With a bank of stamina accumulated pre-season, they held a fitness advantage last year that gradually eroded and looked exhausted by the summer. That diminishing head-start was best illustrated in how their fortunes swung from beating Kerry on the road in early February to suffering a comprehensive defeat from the same county only two months later in Croke Park in the league semi-finals.
By then they had retained their Division 1 status, defying general expectations, but the season unravelled from that point on, with a change of style, to a more defensive and cautious model, being a growing feature of their summer outings; the ominously poor first half against Sligo followed by a heavy Connacht final replay loss to Galway after a dismal drawn match. Just six days later in the qualifiers, fatigue was a mitigating factor in their elimination from the championship by Clare.
Indications are that this year Roscommon will strive for survival but not to the detriment of their championship. If they fail to stay up in Division 1, the view is that life will carry on, and that they may end up having a more fulfilling and meaningful year's football by using the league to meet their own ends rather than trying to assert themselves in finer society. They open their Division 1 campaign with a tough away assignment in Tyrone next Sunday, with a full round of football league matches on over the weekend, beginning on Saturday evening, the big match in Castlebar where Mayo host Monaghan.
Roscommon were rarely out of the newspapers last year, being a relatively novel act in Division 1 as a promoted side, and an obvious candidate for relegation. Their wins over Kerry, Cork and Donegal provided some of the league's highlights, their mission made more admirable by the ongoing issues with Hyde Park. Unfit to host the opening game against Monaghan, the Hyde ended up being fit for just one match in the league, against Mayo, when it is widely accepted it was unfit for play and should have lost that fixture too. The last-minute switch of the Dublin game to Carrick-on-Shannon underlined the cost of the neglect of the Hyde Park surface over the years.
That has now been resolved and they will have three of their seven league games at the venue, starting with Donegal on February 12 in round 2. Kerry and Cavan will also come to Roscommon, with their other matches bringing the Rossies to Croke Park to play Dublin, and also to Monaghan and Castlebar. McStay has already identified that positive in their favour, a more settled base, but they remain favourites to return to Division 2, with promoted Cavan also likely to find the going challenging.
McStay has assumed outright management, having shared the duty with Fergal O'Donnell last season. O'Donnell left at the end of the championship, his departing statement outlining a clear grievance over what he regarded as a "concerted effort" to "undermine and disparage" him and his fellow selectors, David Casey and Stephen Bohan, who also resigned. It is believed that there were key differences over tactics within the management group, although the statement appeared to exonerate the players and McStay from any culpability. Nigel Dineen and McStay were nominated for the vacant position but Dineen withdrew, also outlining his grievances over what he saw as untoward interference in the process.
Roscommon stand an excellent chance of reaching this year's Connacht final, having been drawn on the opposite side to Galway, Mayo and Sligo. They face either London or Leitrim in the semi-finals. Over the winter some retirements were announced, most recently Senan Kilbride, at 30, after a career stifled by injury. Goalkeeper Geoffrey Claffey and Niall Carty, both former captains of Roscommon, retired in November.
Their first round league opponents, Tyrone, have had their own management tensions with Mickey Harte denied an extension of one year, which he had requested, in spite of enjoying enormous success with the county. Tyrone won their first Ulster title since 2010 last year and topped Division 2.
Cavan's return to Division 1 has a glamorous opening on Sunday as they host the league and All-Ireland champions, Dublin, at Breffni Park.
ALLIANZ FOOTBALL LEAGUE
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 4
Mayo v Monaghan, MacHale Park, 7pm
Down v Fermanagh, Pairc Esler, 7pm
Laois v Louth, O’Moore Park, 7pm
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 5
Cavan v Dublin, Breffni Park, 2pm
Donegal v Kerry, Letterkenny, 2pm
Tyrone v Roscommon, Healy Park, 2pm
Derry v Clare, Celtic Park, 2pm
Galway v Cork, Pearse Stadium, 2pm
Meath v Kildare, Pairc Tailteann, 2pm
Longford v Offaly, Glennon Bros Pearse Park, 2pm
Sligo v Armagh, Markievicz Park, 2pm
Tipperary v Antrim, Clonmel, 2pm
Waterford v London, Lemybrien, 1pm
Westmeath v Carlow, TEG Cusack Park, 2pm
Wicklow v Leitrim, Aughrim, 2pm
Wexford v Limerick, Innovate Wexford Park, 2pm
Sunday Indo Sport