Colm Keys: Wheels in motion for Rossies' big revival
It was mid-morning yesterday when the distinctive primrose and blue coloured Roscommon bus pulled into Croke Park carrying the squad from the local CBS on an important reconnaissance mission.
They were there to inspect the facilities ahead of their involvement in the All-Ireland colleges A football final next Saturday against Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne, the first appearance by a Roscommon school in a Hogan Cup final.
A rising tide lifts all boats, it seems, and last weekend felt like a high water mark. A Connacht U-21 success in Tuam on Saturday evening, their fourth in six years, followed by a final-round Division 2 win over Westmeath in Mullingar that secured promotion to the top flight gave supporters in the county a weekend to remember.
Roscommon is fast becoming a byword, in GAA terms, for progress and maximising of resources.
Former Roscommon player and the most recent Irish International Rules manager Paul Earley points out that Roscommon has the sixth smallest population of any county, at 64,065, slightly higher than Monaghan's 60,483 at the last census.
"Roscommon and Monaghan will both be in Division 1 next season. It shows what can be done with the right people in administration and the right coaching structures," says Earley.
The story of the bus is worth recalling in the context of economy and resources. Leased last year for the purposes of saving money, the decision was met with no shortage of derision.
Former goalkeeper Shane Curran was one of those to raise the question of priorities. With one full-time coach and no training facilities why go down this road, he asked.
But through the benevolence of a number of sponsors the leasing costs have been met and the only charge is the cost of fuel. Drivers offer their services on a voluntary basis. Right now there's a scramble for the front seat and the balance sheet reflects a considerable saving. Clubs and schools can hire it for a preferential rate.
A few successful few months - the county claimed its first Connacht League title in 16 years at the end of January - is even helping to alter the thinking on the acquisition of the bus. Is it sending out a statement of intent, presenting an image of unity, an important part of the brand?
Earley likes to think that such progressive thinking will draw more sponsorship and revenue Roscommon's way. Weekends like the one just gone will only to serve to fuel that aspiration. Club Rossie, the county's fundraising arm, recently launched a business membership that they hope will provide further financial scaffolding for the climb that shows no sign of abating.
It's worth remembering that five years ago they had a campaign in Division 4. After an initial growth spurt in 2010 they stalled in 2012 and for some of 2013 but over the last 18 months Roscommon football has picked up considerable speed.
The experience of John Evans has provided a steady hand at the wheel but the structures in place embellish Earley's view that population shouldn't be the hindrance it's made out to be.
Every one of Saturday night's team has come through the development squad system in the county set up by the current games manager Willie Hegarty, also known for his role as the enthusiastic GAA anchor on Shannonside Radio, and the then County Board coaching officer Seamus Sweeney. That has been the bedrock of the 2010, 2012, 2014 and current U-21 teams.
From the 21 players used to beat Westmeath on Sunday only Niall Carty, Seanie McDermott, Cathal Cregg and Senan Kilbride have established themselves independently of those four teams.
Coaches like Mark Dowd, Fergal O'Donnell, Ross Shannon and Gareth Carroll have worked through with those teams.
O'Donnell returned to manage the minors after steering the seniors to Connacht success in 2010, Jimmy Gacquin, manager of the 2010 U-21 team, is now back with the minors.
Is promotion to Division 1 a case of taking too many steps at the right time? Earley admits it is already prompting debate but comes down firmly against the more conservative argument that these players needed another year exposed to the relatively slower pace of Division 2.
"People will put forward the experience of Westmeath (they have twice lost all seven Division 1 games in 2009 and 2014) but Westmeath didn't have the same amount of underage success.
"And with Tyrone, Derry, Armagh and Fermanagh going into Division 2, it could be a very difficult environment next season," he says. "Roscommon still have a lot to improve on. In Mullingar on Sunday I'm not sure if they won more than one Westmeath kick-out.
"But you could see the difference when the three U-21 players (Enda Smith, Diarmuid Murtagh and Ultan Harney) came on in the second half.
"No doubt there was a bit of luck involved. A home win against Meath made the difference on the head-to-head but Meath had a superior score difference.
"Division 1 will be a faster pace but I think that's what this team could really thrive on. That's what could really help their development."
League's big winners and losers
Progressive in every way after jumping two divisions in the space of 14 months.
Despite a second successive crushing defeat to Dublin, Monaghan have firmly asserted their status as a top-six team, and qualifying for semi-final is just reward for beating Kerry, Tyrone and Donegal away from home.
Set themselves up as difficult to beat under Pete McGrath and surprised a few with their return to Division 2.
The hardest fall of all, given that only three years ago this summer they were contesting their fifth successive All-Ireland quarter-final. If there is a crumb of comfort, Monaghan won an Ulster title from Division 3 in 2013 and Armagh pushed Donegal to a point last summer after being relegated from Division 2.
A frustrating campaign for the Red Hand. They drew with the last two All-Ireland champions, Kerry and Dublin, but suffered two of their worst defeats in many years against Ulster's main protagonists, Donegal and Monaghan.
When you are falling, it is difficult to slow the descent. Louth were fighting a Division 3 campaign with one hand tied behind their backs when Paddy Keenan opted to retire from inter-county football last August.