Roscommon rise creates belief gaps to top can be bridged
The sense of deflation around Kiltoom only a few short weeks ago was palpable as the weight of Conor McManus' opportunist goal for Monaghan from a defensive error at the very end hit home.
No matter what way you squared the fixture list to come, you could make only a tentative case for Roscommon survival in Division 1 after that late defeat. The picture sequence in this newspaper illustrating joint-manager Fergie O'Donnell's frustration with his cap said everything.
Monaghan at home in their first match, coupled with Down later in the campaign, represented their best chance. Fall at either hurdle and they were surely staring at the abyss.
The other joint-manager Kevin McStay consoled himself with the assurance that no team was going to "railroad us".
"I think we are going to be competitive, but can we get the wins? That's the problem," he admitted.
Away wins over Kerry, Cork and Donegal have transformed them, however, made them think big in the way that the previous manager John Evans had encouraged them to do after last season's Division 2 final win.
McStay himself said at the outset that Roscommon could not be considered a Division 1 team until they had actually earned it. On Sunday evening, as they left Letterkenny, that entitlement was theirs.
Roscommon won the 1979 league but former goalkeeper Shane Curran thinks that the sequence of wins over the last four weekends stand apart from anything else.
"Trawling back through the history of Roscommon football in Division 1, it's not that long of a history to be honest," he said. "There were good teams in the '70s and '90s and I was part of a good team in the early 2000s but this set of results is unparalleled."
Like McStay, Curran believes winning in Donegal has topped everything as they benefit from an extensive pre-season.
"To win away in Kerry, then to go down to Cork and hammer them in their own back yard was incredible, what no Roscommon team did in either county before. Then to top it off with the result against Donegal at the weekend was the team's best result in terms of the expectation that has built up."
What stands out about Roscommon so far has been their ability to score from long range and difficult angles.
It was evident in their first half against Kerry when they scored eight unanswered points of the highest quality and again on Sunday when Donegal threatened to rein in a seven-point lead. With 7-79 they are the highest scorers in all four divisions with the highest score difference (29).
"It's the manner in which Roscommon are playing that gets me excited. I knew this when Kevin and Liam (McHale) were coming in, that there would be a high emphasis on moving the ball fast and as often with the foot as possible," said Curran.
"There are guys not afraid to shoot from 35 to 40 metres out from difficult angles. They're getting incredible scores. Roscommon have three or four players who can kick the ball over the bar, that's a huge plus on a lot of the teams that are trying to emerge from that second or third tier."
So far Fintan Cregg, a member of the 2006 All-Ireland-winning minor team, has been a revelation. He's had very little exposure to senior football and, with Conor Devaney, was not part of Evans' squad last year but their contribution over the last few weeks has been immense, Cregg scoring 0-20, 0-10 from play with Devaney chipping in with seven points.
The striking thing is how quickly the new management have given their team a settled feel. They've used 26 players, eight have started all five games, while three more have been involved each weekend.
Players like Diarmuid Murtagh, Donie Shine and Donie Smith have yet to feature due to injury while Ultan Harney has been limited to just one brief appearance. The squad is putting down deeper roots but it's the freedom of expression that Curran loves.
"I came out of Kiltoom that day thinking that maybe the physical nature of Division 1, and the teams they would be meeting, would put them at a disadvantage but it's proven that they have an exceptionally high level of fitness.
"What is probably more apparent is that they're playing to a style of football that suits this team is a tradition that Kevin and Liam have brought into in terms of their own coaching acumen. The kick-passing is good, the speed of movement from defence to attack is excellent and we're seeing very little lateral passing which obviously is translating to the scoreboard.
"It's the way the people over the team give the players that freedom. There are a lot of teams around the country that if you give them that freedom, they'll thrive. Players at inter-county level in most counties are quite good."
Curran admits Evans deserves credit for leaving a very solid squad and feels the Kerry man "wasn't far wrong" with his assertion that they should think much bigger.
"You have to give credit to John Evans where it is deserved. He wasn't far wrong but he wouldn't have been the man to bring them to an All-Ireland, that's the difference."