Rossies on track but injury to Keith Higgins a Mayo blow
Roscommon 0-13 Mayo 0-10
Stephen Rochford didn't require any great forensic analysis to know how and where his Mayo team let this final-round Connacht League match slip to Roscommon.
They lost Keith Higgins to a concerning knee injury in the opening five minutes of this MacHale Park encounter and had Tom Parsons off the field being treated for a thumb injury for a further six minutes.
In that time Roscommon established early control and built a lead that extended to 0-4 to 0-0 by the 13th minute, holding their shape to see it home comfortably after that.
It sets up a repeat of last year's pre-season final with Galway at a Galway venue next weekend and allows new Roscommon boss Kevin McStay to feel that they are nudging themselves in the right direction all the time.
McStay was keen during the week to play down any rising expectation there might be in the years ahead, something his predecessor John Evans wasn't afraid to ventilate, especially after last year's Division 2 final win over Down when he suggested sufficient gaps in the All-Ireland market lay ahead for them to exploit.
Evans may still be proved right but for now McStay only has the cliff-face of their opening Division 1 games against Monaghan and Kerry on his mind.
Negotiating that with some degree of safety could shape how they set themselves up for the rest of the season and even the years ahead, he conceded. So with that in mind it was no surprise that they were sharper and more tuned in than their hosts whose injury toll mounted with the departure of their captain Kevin Keane to a shoulder injury and the promising Conor Loftus who retired late on with what Rochford suspected was cramp.
Higgins jarred his knee after two minutes, couldn't shake it off for the next two minutes and was gone shortly after that, replaced by Lee Keegan who orchestrated plenty in his absence.
Rochford conceded Higgins would probably miss their opening two games against Cork and Dublin, as will Keane on top of Cillian O'Connor, Chris Barrett, Seamus O'Shea and the Castlebar contingent who will also sit that period out.
"We are hoping that it (Higgins' injury) is not anything season-threatening. We will wait for the scan but it is very unlikely that we will see him in the early rounds of the league," said Rochford afterwards, who admitted those early setbacks had "upset" them.
"We did not get off to the start that we wanted and finished the game in more of a fashion that we would have liked in terms of our tempo," he conceded.
They experimented with Donie Vaughan at full-forward but never got to see that in full flight as he was required to play deep when Parsons went off and remained in that role for much of the half.
"We had to move him out after the first couple of minutes to address Tom Parsons being out of the game for a period of time and that allowed Roscommon to go into a three-point lead. That was the margin that was in it at the end."
McStay, who placed no stock on facing his native county, accepted Roscommon may be further down the road of preparation for the league start out of necessity.
"I've no doubt we've more done but we have to have more done, we're new to the division. They're an established Division 1 team, they can take their time and ease their way into it. Our first four or five matches in the division are critical to how we're going to negotiate the next two or three years.
"That's (league start) everything, everything. I have no doubt that we will approach it full on. But will we be good enough? That remains to be seen because it's another level. But every week we've played it has improved. It's a great introduction for us. Each little rung at a time."
They won despite being under pressure for much of the game to Mayo's midfield of Tom Parsons and Jason Gibbons.
"You'll be saying that after every match this year, I can guarantee you," conceded McStay with a degree of honesty. "What we're trying to do is figure out a way of just playing modern midfield since we haven't got the size that Mayo has at this time.
"Certainly the one or two big guys we have, their conditioning isn't good enough to throw them in yet. If we threw them in there they'd only get swamped so what's the point? But we'll figure a way around it, you can still figure a way around midfield in the modern game when you have good athletic lads that are trying very hard."
Enda Smith and Ian Kilbride were paired together here and Smith took off on one of his lung-bursting runs to grab an early second-half point that doubled the lead to 0-8 to 0-4. But Smith can obviously contribute more further upfield and that is something Roscommon are likely to revert to.
McStay hasn't been afraid to play around with a few ideas but after watching Cathal Cregg clip over three first-half points his days at half-back are surely numbered too. Fintan Cregg, an All-Ireland minor winner 10 years ago, showed plenty of creative touches, while in defence Niall McInerney handled Jason Doherty well and Seanie McDermott gave a reminder that his talents haven't dwindled with a performance high on nuisance value.
Twice Roscommon built five-point leads in the second half but Jason Doherty engineered two frees which he converted himself as Mayo finished strong.
"Roscommon have a bit more work done than us but I think our second half was more what we wanted, a lot more spirited, a lot more workmanlike. Our link-up play to our forward line was better. It wasn't consistent enough at times," said Rochford.
Rochford sees opportunities ahead in the absence of so many established players and wasn't too downbeat about the loss. "We're not going to feel sorry for ourselves. It's difficult (to lose more players to injury) but it gives somebody an opportunity to stand up and say I can replace an established player and leave us in a stronger position, panel-wise for the year ahead."
scorers - Roscommon: C Murtagh 0-4 (4fs), C Cregg 0-3, E Smith, N Collins, N Daly, F Cregg, S Kilbride, D Murtagh all 0-1 each. Mayo: C Loftus 0-5 (4fs), J Doherty 0-2 (2fs), M Ronaldson, K Ruttledge, J Gibbons all 0-1 each.
Roscommon - G Claffey; S McDermott, N Collins, R Stack; C Daly, N Daly, N McInerney; E Smith, I Kilbride; F Cregg, C Murtagh, R Daly; S Kilbride, C Cregg, D Murtagh. Subs: B Murtagh for N Daly (49), S Oates for D Murtagh (56), K Kilcline for F Cregg (56), G Patterson for Stack (58).
Mayo - R Hennelly; P O'Hora, K Keane, G Cafferkey; K Higgins, C Crowe, C Boyle; T Parsons, J Gibbons; J Doherty, M Ronaldson, D McHale; K Ruttledge, D Vaughan, C Loftus. Subs: L Keegan for Higgins (inj, 5), S McHale for Keane (inj, 18), D O'Connor for Ruttledge (44), S Nally for Boyle (50), B Harrison for O'Hora (52), B Reape for Loftus (inj, 56).
ref - J Gilmartin (Sligo)