Winds of change blowing in the west
Published 09/07/2016 | 02:30
Pearse Stadium is not where Roscommon footballers expected to be tomorrow, no more than the majority of Galway people thought they would be enjoying a Connacht final by the seaside.
They assumed All-Ireland qualifier action today would comprise this weekend's agenda while Roscommon believed that they would be Castlebar-bound for a clash with Mayo.
All changed in the space of 15 minutes in MacHale Park last month as Galway unleashed a burst of enterprise that flattened Mayo, thus ending their five-year control of Connacht.
It was Galway's first win over Division 1 opposition since they were last in the top flight in 2011 and, more importantly, reawakened hopes in the county that after a long time on the outer circle they were moving back towards the elite.
Ambition can surge quickly in this type of scenario, especially in a county like Galway.
"It was a bit like 1998 when Galway went to Castlebar as total outsiders and beat Mayo, who had been in the previous two All-Ireland finals. Very few thought it would happen, just as very few thought Galway would beat Mayo this year either," says John O'Mahony.
"But then that's what happens between Galway and Mayo. It doesn't matter what has gone before - every game can take on a life of its own."
The 1998 season was his first as Galway manager and, by the end of September, Sam Maguire's arrival in Eyre Square marked the end of a 32-year All-Ireland drought.
It's unlikely that this year's win over Mayo will have the same dramatic impact on the championship but progress is relative and, for now at least, a Connacht title would make Galway's year.
After all, they haven't gone this long without a provincial win since 1987-'95.
The prize is equally precious for Roscommon. Having been priced as Division 1 relegation fancies with Down before the start of the league, a third-place finish on the table surpassed all expectations, making for a very satisfactory spring campaign.
If it were to be followed up with a first Connacht title success for six years, it would make for a golden summer.
The predictable nature of the Connacht Championship in recent years greatly diminished its appeal so this season's shake-up has been welcomed everywhere except, of course, Mayo.
Galway: Where have you been?
"They are shaping like some of the best Galway teams of the past, although still requiring three or four new men," wrote Eugene McGee in this paper on the Monday after they lost the 2008 All-Ireland quarter-final to Kerry (1-21 to 1-16) in a Croke Park downpour.
There were many who agreed and with Galway having won the 2002 and 2005 All-Ireland U-21 and 2007 minor titles, it was logical to assume that those "three or four new men" referred to by McGee would emerge pretty quickly.
For whatever reason, the bright future became a mirage. Over the next seven (2009-'15) championships, Galway won only 14 of 29 games, with eight of the victories coming against New York (2), London (2), Tipperary (2), Waterford (1) and Leitrim (1).
With respect to all five, Galway would, traditionally, have moved in much higher orbits so beating them wasn't exactly a major achievement.
The down days were many. Defeats by Wexford and Sligo (both at home), Antrim (away) and a 17-point thrashing by Mayo in Pearse Stadium in 2013 were the most depressing.
Galway dropped into Division 2 in 2011 and have remained there since. Hopes of promotion were high this year but came to nothing after they drew three games and lost to Cavan in a winner-takes-all contest in the last round.
Against that dreary background in a county that stands in third place on the All-Ireland honours' list, it's easy to understand why the win over Mayo prompted a sense of giddiness at the prospect of ending an eight-year wait for a provincial title.
Roscommon - the real deal?
After Round 5 of this year's league, Roscommon were second on the Division 1 table behind Dublin, having won four of five games, three of which were 'away' to Kerry, Cork and Donegal.
They had averaged 20 points per game and boasted a +21 point scoring difference after playing some of the best football produced by a Roscommon team for many years.
"Today we started looking like a Division 1 team, who deserve to be here on merit," said Kevin McStay after the five-point win over Donegal in Letterkenny.
Since then, Roscommon have played six games, winning three and losing three. The defeats were against Mayo, Dublin and Kerry, scarcely setbacks to sound an alarm for a developing team, even if they were way off the pace in the league semi-final clash with the Kingdom.
More worrying for Roscommon was the quality of performance against New York and in the first half of the clash with Sligo.
"It's not a match I ever want to think about again," said McStay about the desperately close call against New York in Gaelic Park, when Roscommon squeezed through by a point.
Leitrim were seen off with a routinely effective performance before Roscommon experienced a Sligo tornado, which left them trailing by eight points at half-time.
Not many games are won by teams that concede 2-8 in the first half but Roscommon turned it around, outgunning Sligo by 4-10 to 0-5 in the second half.
They deserve great credit for working their way through a big problem but that's counterbalanced by justifiable criticism over their awful first-half performance. Clearly, a repeat against a team like Galway would have far more serious consequences.
The fallout from the Sligo game has produced four adjustments to the Roscommon team, including replacing Geoffrey Claffey with Darren O'Malley in goal.
Switching goalkeeper for the biggest game of the season so far underlines Roscommon's concerns but then Kevin Walsh has gambled with the No 1 jersey too, promoting Corofin's Bernard Power, 26, for the clash with Mayo and retaining him for tomorrow's game.
Power did not feature in either the Allianz League or FBD League campaigns.
It's not encouraging for Roscommon, whose last championship win over Galway was in the 2001 Connacht semi-final.
Galway later avenged the defeat in the All-Ireland quarter-final in what was the first of six successive wins over their neighbours by an average of 9.5 points per game.
However, the last of those was in 2012 at a time when Roscommon weren't nearly as strong as they are now.
Galway beat Roscommon by a point in this year's FBD League final in late January, a game where Kevin Walsh showed his longer-term hand.
No fewer than 11 of tomorrow's starting team played that day, whereas only Roscommon will have only three of the January team.
Who speaks of defeat?
Neither county will countenance it now but, barring a draw, one of them will be dealing in All-Ireland qualifier reality by tomorrow evening.
The losers will play a Round 4A qualifier on July 23 against one of the following: Carlow, Cavan, Derry, Meath, Clare, Laois, Sligo.
The winners will be heading to the All-Ireland quarter-finals on July 31.