Friday 24 November 2017

Colm O'Rourke: Roscommon are making a name for themselves

Ronan Daly and Ciarán Murtagh celebrate Roscommon’s victory over Kerry. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Ronan Daly and Ciarán Murtagh celebrate Roscommon’s victory over Kerry. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Who do Geoff Claffey, Niall Daly, Enda Smith, David Murray, Neil Collins and Seán Purcell play for? I think a lot of football supporters would not guess correctly. And it is not a Division 3 or 4 team. If you add in Seán McDermott, Cathal Cregg and Senan Kilbride there are some - but maybe not too many - who would get it right. It is strange that the players who have made the most progress this year, and who are playing some of the most attractive football in the country, remain largely unknown outside their own county, Roscommon.

When I saw Monaghan beat Roscommon with a late goal after a joint goalkeeper-defender mistake in the first round of the Allianz League on a miserable January day in Kiltoom, I thought this was a case of welcome to the real world of football. There is an ocean of difference between Division 2 and Division 1, and having seen Roscommon struggle last year to win promotion, I felt that one season in the top tier would be their lot. Even after going to Kerry in the second round and winning I still thought that enthusiasm would only get them so far and eventually they would be crushed by the seasoned top-flight teams. Division 1 is the breeding ground for All-Ireland winners. I suspect that most Roscommon's supporters felt the same about their team too and were concerned about only one thing - survival.

Four weeks after the late collapse against Monaghan, Roscommon went to Cork and scored 4-25. Some mistook it for a hurling scoreline. When Donegal were then soundly beaten away from home the football world was like Butch Cassidy when he couldn't shake off the posse in the western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Eventually in exasperation he turned to Sundance and asked, "Who are those guys?" Everyone is now asking that of Roscommon.

With just over 60,000 people Roscommon and probably Monaghan are the two counties who have made best use of their resources. The system in the GAA is completely unfair but until such time as there is a road to Damascus conversion, self-help is the only help in town. This population base makes Roscommon one of the smallest counties in the country. It is one of the counties that the last ten years has hit hardest too. Driving through Roscommon recently it was fairly clear that whatever improvement had taken place in the economy in the last year, it had not hit there or many of the surrounding counties either. The message from Fine Gael during the election about keeping the recovery going must have really grated with a lot of people there. But at least they had their football.

Having qualified for their third Connacht Under 21 final in a row this year it is clear that the improvements at senior level have a large element of planning about them. Bringing in Fergal O'Donnell and Kevin McStay was a very wise move. John Evans started the train moving but the other two men have a better chance of driving it into the station. They are well equipped for the road less travelled.

O'Donnell has a track record of winning with underage teams and he keeps a low profile while getting the job done.

And Kevin McStay put his neck on the line. He had already proven his management ability with St Brigid's, which would not have been an easy gig. After that he could easily have sat back as a proven expert and pontificated on the television like the rest of us. When you are on television your opinion is rarely proven to be wrong. We can all be wise after the event.

I know very well the perils of management at both school and club level and it is much easier on television to tell everyone what most feel they have seen themselves anyway. It is a cosseted world and it is relatively straightforward after every game to describe what happened, and what was done, both right and wrong. And if we don't get the message across, there is always Joe Brolly.

Implementing those words of wisdom in a real-life management capacity is a different matter entirely. McStay has bridged that gap but he knows very well the maxim set out by Enoch Powell that all political careers end in failure, even if it looks that Roscommon could get a good bit better. There is no next year in football though, they must strike while the iron is hot.

Roscommon have always had good financial backing too which is a big help in running an amateur team, if that is not a contradiction. There is a generosity of spirit about people from the west who have done well. Most have had to move east or out of the country but they never forgot who they are or where they came from. Many of these same Roscommon people have suffered hard knocks in the decade of recession and had their share of gurriers to kick them when they're down, but even still they are not afraid to put their money into promoting their team. They were all disciples of Obama and his message: 'Yes we can'.

With Roscommon now more or less into the league semi-finals, there are at least three more games for them to enjoy in spring. Supporters better book their seats for next Sunday when the Dubs arrive in town. It promises to be the biggest gate for a long time in Roscommon and with Hyde Park out of commission for so long it is a huge boost for local traders. The future of the GAA has to be linked to a proper schedule of games for all counties so as to give them a number of matches in their own grounds in summer.

Mayo will try to put the Roscommon genie back in the bottle today. They have presided over five years of domination and now more of the western natives are getting restless. Galway have improved and should end up in Division 1 while Sligo are no busted flush after beating Kildare in the last round. Connacht will be a very competitive championship this year and before this season is over the names of Roscommon players might be a lot more familiar to every GAA follower.

* * * * *

Brian Smyth was buried last week. A quiet, self-effacing man he had the distinction of being the first Meath man to raise the Sam Maguire Cup over his head in 1949.

Being captain was not a position he sought. Skryne, my old club, were county champions and they left it to Brian and Micheal O'Brien, who were brothers-in-law, to decide on the honour. The story goes that only 13 Meath men paraded before the Leinster final as they decided in the dressing room who would be captain. Knowing both men in later life it probably came down to the toss of a coin as neither would have ambitions in that regard.

Brian Smyth, like a lot of the men of that era, served his club and county with great distinction in a variety of positions. He was secretary of the hurling board and chairman of the county board at various times. He was a footballer, hurler (which was the game he probably preferred), an official and anything else that was needed. And it was not a chore or a sacrifice, he did it for the enjoyment and that was all he wanted.

Meath were lucky in that a core of great men drove the GAA on from the 1930s, '40s and '50s, before which, Meath were not a powerful force. Their values were of self-sacrifice, honesty, integrity and they had no concern for personal gain or profile. Brian Smyth was one of those quiet leaders and those old-fashioned values he lived by are the same qualities we all admire in every generation. May he rest peacefully.

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