Friday 18 October 2019

64,500 people and the 6th smallest county - Gritty Roscommon continues to punch above its weight


Cathal Compton of Roscommon claims possession ahead of Thomas Flynn of Galway during last year’s Connacht SFC Final at Hyde Park. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cathal Compton of Roscommon claims possession ahead of Thomas Flynn of Galway during last year’s Connacht SFC Final at Hyde Park. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The signs appeared ominous for Roscommon last October when the county board deemed it necessary to issue a statement on how the new manager of their choice would not be replacing Kevin McStay.

Aidan O'Rourke, All-Ireland medal winner with Armagh in 2002, was the chosen one, but he withdrew shortly before his name was due to go forward to a county board meeting for ratification.

The plan was for Mike McGurn (strength and conditioning) and Karl Lacey, former Donegal All-Ireland medal winner, plus two Roscommon locals, to come aboard with O'Rourke.

It fell apart when O'Rourke backed out, leaving Roscommon with an immediate problem. Managerial difficulties certainly weren't new to them, but now they found themselves beginning a fresh search eight weeks after McStay's departure.

There was talk too of behind-the-scenes interference. Intriguingly, the board executive spoke of "attempts that have been made to influence the outcome of the process".

They further claimed that "these events have undermined the integrity of the process and potentially affected our ability to attract a new manager. In addition, some of the public commentary on social media has been extremely unhelpful".

It could all have become terribly messy, with would-be candidates steering clear of a job for which the first choice had baulked at the last minute.

However, by a stroke of luck, changed circumstances in Dublin hurling offered Roscommon with a quick solution. Anthony Cunningham, who had worked with Pat Gilroy in Dublin, was believed to be in the running to replace him, but instead the job went to Mattie Kenny in early November

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And so Roscommon turned to Cunningham, a ready-made, experienced manager, who had enjoyed success with Galway hurlers, St Brigid's and Garrycastle footballers. A week after Kenny was announced as Dublin boss, Cunningham took over in Roscommon.

Seven months later, he leads them into the Connacht final, having eliminated Mayo, one of the All-Ireland favourites.

It wasn't the first time Roscommon had shown an impressive capacity to recover quickly from difficult situations. The dissolution of the McStay-Fergal O'Donnell partnership in 2016 wasn't exactly an exercise in harmony, but a year later Roscommon were Connacht champions after a thumping win over Galway in the final.

There were several other managerial upheavals over the years too, yet they never did lasting damage as happened in some other counties.

Resilience has always been an impressive Roscommon characteristic, honed perhaps by their ongoing battles with bigger Connacht rivals, Galway and Mayo.

Numerically, they are at a serious disadvantage, compared to their larger neighbours, but have always managed to disguise it. On a national scale, they impress too.

In fact, per head of population, Roscommon (64,500) punch well above their weight. Only Monaghan (61,200) can compare with them in terms of getting a big return from a small base.

Indeed, both of them serve as an example to several more densely-populated counties, who achieve a lot less.

Roscommon are bidding for their fourth Connacht title since the turn of the Millennium, a decent return when competing against Galway, whose population is four times greater and Mayo, who have twice as many people.

The Allianz League records reflect even more favourably on Roscommon. Based on their finishing positions over the last six seasons, they are ranked ninth of the 32 counties over that period.

Indeed, they started in eighth position this year, but were overtaken by Galway after finishing seventh in Division 1.

Among those behind Roscommon on the six-year table are Kildare (population 222,000) and Meath (195,000), two counties who really should be doing better. Cavan, Down, Armagh, and Derry, counties with traditionally high reputations, also trail Roscommon.

Roscommon were relegated from Division 1 last March after winning one, drawing one and losing five of their seven games. At face value, it looks disappointing but it doesn't quite tell the full story, as they lost to Mayo by a point, when a draw would have been enough to keep them in Division 1, leaving Monaghan facing the drop.

Roscommon were in the top eight in last year's championship too and while they lost all three 'Super 8s' games by big margins, at least they got there.

This is the fourth successive year they have reached the Connacht final, a run last achieved in 1977-'80. That might not look like anything particularly noteworthy, yet prior to this year Galway, hadn't managed it since 1963-'66 so clearly it's not that easy.

Séamus Hayden, who was aboard the last Roscommon team to reach four successive Connacht finals, all of which they won, says that supporters will be travelling to Salthill tomorrow with a real sense of anticipation.

Perfectly placed to gauge the mood from dealing with customers in his pub 'Down the Hatch' in Roscommon town, Hayden said that the pride in the primrose and blue should never be underestimated.

"It's always there, but the mood in the county after the win over Mayo was something else. We had been going to Castlebar for more than 30 years without beating Mayo and no one outside the county gave us a chance this year either. That never bothers Roscommon teams" said Hayden.

He puts Roscommon's ability to ignore the underdog tag down to an unwavering belief that they can come good at any time.

"We're like that. We don't have the sort of population that Galway and Mayo have and most of our players are either working or in college outside the county, but it's never used as an excuse," he said.

That's the positive side of Roscommon but on a negative note, Roscommon supporters can be very critical, especially of managers, as several have discovered over the years.

"I can never understand this thing of blaming managers for everything if results aren't going your way. It's so easy, but it makes no sense. People can turn very quickly. I'd see lads in the pub and they might start the night with one view of a manager and end it with another."

Hayden believes that Roscommon are unlucky not to be going for a Connacht treble tomorrow, having enjoyed a lot of possession which wasn't turned into scores against Galway in last year's final.

They paid a heavy price in the second half as Shane Walsh inspired a Galway surge which took them home safely. The big question surrounding Roscommon is whether they will repeat the intensity they brought to the Mayo game, a point Cunningham has been emphasising.

"It's of no use if we can't back up the Mayo performance with a second performance like it. It would be one line I've used to the players since then," he said.

Hayden and the rest of the Roscommon supporters are convinced they will.

"It's a big chance and they know they can take it," he said.

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