Monday 26 February 2018

Calm in midst of Rossies storm

Fergal O'Donnell's laid-back style helping nurse county side back to rude health

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

ROSCOMMON town is a pretty turbulent place right now, due to the emotive dispute over the local hospital. The fact that it is situated right next to Dr Hyde Park means the protesters will be in full voice again outside Sunday's Connacht final, not least because the Taoiseach is expected to be among the visiting Mayo fans.

Yet not even a political curveball with quite a bit of spin on it can fluster Roscommon's laid-back football manager. Asked if the hospital dispute means his side are under particular pressure to give the county something to cheer about, Fergal O'Donnell catches the question in mid-flight and dispatches it away with the same laconic grace as when he captained the county at midfield.


"Obviously these are disappointing times and you wouldn't like to see it (the hospital closure) happen, but these are footballers and that's a different issue. They are amateur lads, it's not their remit," he stresses.

This is a particularly hectic weekend for O'Donnell because, apart from the big match, his sister is getting married locally today.

"That's sisters for you!" he chuckles. "Sure if she'd cancelled it we probably wouldn't be in it (the final)!"

Such deft media handling shows why he was the man the Rossies turned to in the midst of another crisis three years ago, when their football team looked to be in as bad a shape as the local healthcare system.

In 2008 alone Roscommon went through three senior managements.

John Maughan, disgusted with the personal abuse he was shipping, resigned mid-season after an 11-point defeat to Westmeath, memorably referring to their fans as "customers" on the basis that they did not deserve to be called supporters.

Former county players Paul Earley and Marty McDermott stepped in as interim bosses for the two remaining league games and U-21 manager Mike Ryan took up the reins for the championship.

But having led them to their first All-Ireland minor title in 51 years in 2006, O'Donnell was regarded locally as a football messiah. It was a notion that embarrassed him.

A garda stationed in Boyle, he had finished with the minors in 2007, was still only 35, had a young family and had already declared no interest in inter-county management in the near future. It needed what one insider describes as "protracted negotiations" to persuade him to take the senior job.

And when he immediately led them to an FBD final, in which they took Galway to extra-time in Tuam, the hype went into overdrive.

But it hasn't been all sweetness and light since. Roscommon retained their Division 3 league status in his first year but suffered a brutal 20-point drubbing by Mayo in the Connacht semi-final. They beat Wexford, after an extra-time replay, in the qualifiers but then succumbed to Meath.

Last year's league run resulted in an ignominious drop to Division 4, though there were some mitigating circumstances. Four games were lost by just one point and key players like Senan Kilbride, Michael Finneran, Cathal Cregg and David Casey were on the injury-list.

Yet against all the odds they ended the season as shock Connacht champions before bowing out to Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Last year's provincial title is still regarded by some as a fluke, but O'Donnell doesn't get remotely irritated when you suggest that, and his laid-back personality is undoubtedly a help in dealing with the pressures of inter-county management.

But he admits even he was sweating on the night of April 30 this year, when he sat down in a room in the Hilton Hotel in Westchester, on the New Jersey/New York border, with his selectors Declan Hoare, Mark Dowd and Stephen Bohan.

Seven days earlier they'd sauntered into a Division 4 final against Longford and left beaten and badly deflated.

"Things were going well; St Brigid's got to the club final, the U-21s had got to the provincial final, Roscommon CBS won the All-Ireland B and we were promoted with two games to go. Maybe we were a bit complacent," O'Donnell admits retrospectively.

"As a management we talked in New York about what if this doesn't go right for us? Where do we go from here? To think of coming back having lost, it was a real worry."

They negotiated that banana skin expertly and restricted Leitrim to just six points five weeks later.

But now they're overburdened with expectations again, particularly as the county minors are also involved -- double-chasing in the Hyde for the first time since 1980. O'Donnell will have left no stone unturned.

Despite his relaxed personality, he is a meticulous planner, according to one source. "He leaves nothing to chance, can be ruthless when he needs to be and is very shrewd in taking advice, both from inside and outside the county."

When they beat Sligo last year O'Donnell likened his side's giant-killing to Wimbledon FC.

The last time they beat Mayo in the championship was 10 years ago (he was captain) so he's describing this one as "our FA Cup".

With Sunday's losers playing the eventual winners of the Wicklow/Armagh v Tyrone tie, he believes Roscommon "need to go through the front door".

"People forget most of those lads are only 22 or 23 and I've always said this team will get better in three or four years' time," he says. "People do get carried away with expectation. I've seen it so often with Roscommon, that the two teams are in the final and by 4.0 on Sunday it'll be, 'ach, they're useless.'

"But I'd be realistic. No matter what happens on Sunday, I'm optimistic there is a future there for them, but it is going to take time."

Irish Independent

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