Saturday 29 April 2017

Roscommon on the rack as promise of last spring now a distant memory

From great wins over Donegal, Kerry, Cork to the bottom of the table, it has been a tough 12 months for Roscommon

Cathal Cregg's absence was flagged from the start of a season that was always going to be difficult for Roscommon. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Cathal Cregg's absence was flagged from the start of a season that was always going to be difficult for Roscommon. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

This weekend last year, Roscommon football was in dreamland, enjoying the fruits of a hugely encouraging February campaign and about to nudge Down ever closer to the Division 1 relegation chute.

Supporters didn't even complain when the clash with Down had to be taken out of an unplayable Dr Hyde Park and switched across the county border to Longford.

Niall Daly opted out after not being selected for the game with Donegal last month. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Niall Daly opted out after not being selected for the game with Donegal last month. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

They even unfurled a banner, proclaiming 'Ross Boss While Down Doss', as a confident squad beat the disjointed Mourne men by nine points. There was more to follow. A week later, Roscommon beat Donegal in Letterkenny, having earlier picked up full points on away assignments against Cork and Kerry.

Roscommon's fourth win in five games (they lost the opener to Monaghan after conceding a late goal) left them second on the table behind Dublin and, more importantly, ensured survival in Division 1 with two games remaining.

Giddy times indeed for the new management team of Kevin McStay and Fergal O'Donnell and a squad that were favourites for relegation before the start of the league.

Fright

And then, all changed. Since late March last year, Roscommon have won only three of 12 games, all against lower-ranked opposition. Even then, they got a terrible fright in one of the games, surviving by a point against New York in the Connacht Championship before beating Leitrim and Sligo.

The win over Sligo on June 12 was their last victory and since then they have lost five and drawn one of six games. McStay and O'Donnell have parted ways, there has been considerable change in the panel for a variety of reasons and Roscommon head into tomorrow's game with Kerry at 1/33 to be relegated after one season in the top flight.

And if that weren't difficult enough for McStay, coach Liam McHale and selector Ger Dowd to confront, they had to deal this week with a critical tirade from Gay Sheerin, former Roscommon goalkeeper who later went on to manage the team.

Sheerin told Shannonside Radio that he did not "like to see Mayo men on the sideline with a Roscommon team" because of past experiences between the counties.

He also alleged that some of the players who are no longer available for county duty would be involved under different circumstances.

The panel has undergone significant changes since last year, some of which arose from retirements, others from management decisions and a few from players who chose not to be involved this year.

Among them is Cathal Cregg, one of Roscommon's top forwards for several years. His absence was flagged from the start of a season that was always going to be difficult for Roscommon.

Further focus turned on panel matters when Niall Daly opted out after not being selected for the game with Donegal last month. He scored a goal against Tyrone a week earlier but after being replaced at half-time and failing to get a starting place against Donegal, he quit the panel.

One player leaving a panel would not, in itself, be seen as particularly significant, but coming so early in the season and after a period of change - on and off the pitch - it added to the sense that all wasn't quite right in Roscommon

It was inevitable that they would be under intense scrutiny following the break-up of the McStay-O'Donnell partnership last September.

This, after all, was supposed to be the dream team. However, the partnership lasted only one season, with the reasons for the dissolution never explained beyond a comment by chairman Seamus Sweeney at a county board meeting that "the joint management situation had not worked and was not going to work".

O'Donnell's subsequent allegations that a concerted effort had been made to undermine and disparage him and selectors David Casey and Stephen Bohan by people outside management and the squad raised important questions which have remained unanswered.

There's a real irony attached to the management upheaval. McStay and O'Donnell were appointed when John Evans, who had steered Roscommon into Division 1 in 2015, did not seek re-appointment four months later after championship defeats by Sligo and Fermanagh.

Explaining his reasons at the time, he claimed there had been "an active canvass" among some board officials to have him removed.

"I know that two or three of the people involved had sons that I didn't bring onto the team or bring onto the panel. Maybe they thought their sons are better than they are," said Evans.

A second irony arises from the likelihood that if Roscommon had beaten Galway in last year's Connacht final, managerial harmony would have reigned. It wasn't that Roscommon didn't have their chances either.

In the drawn game in Pearse Stadium, they had possession for a lengthy period in Galway's half in stoppage time, trying to work their way into a position to shoot what would almost certainly have been the winning point.

Read more: 'I do not like to see Mayo men on the sideline for Roscommon' - Ex-Roscommon boss hits out at Kevin McStay

Cautious

However, in their determination to retain possession and guard against being counter-attacked, they were overly cautious and didn't get a shot away. A week on, Galway hammered them in the replay and, six days later, Clare ended their season with a win in the qualifiers.

Off-field developments over the next few months and performances this year have left many Roscommon supporters concerned about the future.

However, there's also a view that just as Roscommon's stock was not as valuable as it appeared this time last year, it's not as low as some would have you believe now.

As co-proprietor of 'Down the Hatch' pub in Roscommon town, Séamus Hayden, always has a good sense of the country's mood.

And while the county's former long-time midfielder accepts that there's a lot of disappointment around at present, he believes it's time for some perspective.

"Roscommon did well in the league last spring because our lads were fitter than other teams, early on anyway. There was pressure on to do well after coming up from Division 2 and the lads did that.

"It was never going to be easy to keep that going through the summer and things went a bit flat. You have to be realistic though. Roscommon is a small county and we don't have the depth of talent that the big ones have. Every so often, we get a really good squad together than I'd still be quite confident that things will go well over the next few years.

"Roscommon were being told how good they were this time last year and now it's all gloom and with some people. The truth is somewhere in between," said Hayden, who was one of the few to predict that Galway would win last year's Connacht title.

He was disappointed with Sheerin's comments about McStay and McHale and believes that they may have been made in the heat of the moment.

"As the saying goes, on 'mature reflection' he might not have made them. Kevin (McStay) and Liam (McHale) are two of the finest lads you'd ever meet. Kevin is living in Roscommon for nearly 30 years and has done a lot for football in the county. No one is more anxious that Roscommon does well than him."

Hayden says that relegation to Division 2 should not be seen as a big setback , especially if the season is tapered in such a way that it leaves the squad fresh the championship.

"You have the likes of Galway, Cork, Meath and Kildare in Division 2 and no one is saying they are in serious trouble. It won't be a big deal if Roscommon go down. They have a good draw in the championship (home advantage against London or Leitrim in the Connacht semi-final) so there's a lot to look forward to yet. I'd never worry too much about happens in February or March," said Hayden.

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