Thursday 18 July 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Anthony Cunningham's redemption puts gloss on Rossies glory'

Tribesmen outfought by a relentless team who mirrored their manager’s mentality

Roscommon manager Anthony Cunningham and his team in the dressing room following the Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Galway and Roscommon at Pearse Stadium in Galway. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Roscommon manager Anthony Cunningham and his team in the dressing room following the Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Galway and Roscommon at Pearse Stadium in Galway. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Rossies on the road: Diarmuid Murtagh pounces to score the game’s only goal for Roscommon past Galway goalkeeper Ruairí Lavelle. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Anthony came home on a mission and Anthony came home with a vengeance. The last three and a half years can't have been much fun for Anthony Cunningham. First he got the tar two months after bringing Galway to a second All-Ireland hurling final in four years. Then, after they won the All-Ireland, he was portrayed as having held back the team rather than having laid the foundation for success.

He was the forgotten man and it looked unlikely that a Roscommon team humiliated in the Super 8s would put him back on centre stage. It hardly seemed fair but sometimes that's how things crumble cookie wise.

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At half-time yesterday it looked like his native county had more bitter pills for Cunningham to swallow. Galway were five points clear at the break and cruising, having efficiently disarmed Roscommon's attack and picked apart their defence. All the limitations of last summer seemed on show again.

Less than an hour later the population of Roscommon was going ape on the Salthill grass. The frenzied nature of those celebrations seemed kind of odd. Hadn't they won the same title just two years ago? Now they were acting like they'd never won one before.

This was the joyous capering of a reprieved prisoner. Bound for painful punishment, Roscommon rebelled against their sentence. Within six minutes of the restart they were level and after hitting the front twelve minutes from time, they never looked like losing.

In that second half Galway played as though waiting for order and logic to reassert themselves. They seemed convinced that once the game settled down their system would rescue them. But the game never settled down. Roscommon had injected a note of madness into the proceedings and Galway wilted in response.

If they could just have caught their breath or regained their balance things would have been OK. But those crazy Roscommon bastards wouldn't let them. They just kept coming.

Roscommon looked like they were having the time of their lives while Galway looked like they were dutifully tackling an onerous chore. You could have run the national grid off Roscommon's energy and enthusiasm. Galway's wouldn't have lit a match for you.

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So another one bites the dust. Galway join Mayo, Tyrone and Monaghan as putative challengers to Dublin who've lost in this year's championship. All these teams appear to be regressing.

In the 44th minute Galway's Peter Cooke squared up to Roscommon's Ronan Daly. Ronan's brother Niall was having none of it. He got right in the taller Cooke's face and wouldn't leave him alone. The Dalys were determined to have the better of this argument.

The moment seemed to symbolise not just yesterday's game but Roscommon's whole history. In Connacht they've always been the little guys standing up to the big guys. They refuse to go away and stop bothering them.

Ten minutes later Cooke was taken off. Galway didn't seem to fancy an argument yesterday. That a team full of attacking talent only scored two points in the second half is a desperate indictment of their current approach. To score just twice is not enough, as The Sawdoctors might say. They won't be getting any songs out of this team.

A day like this has been coming for Galway. Over the past couple of years they've been the Quasimodos of winning ugly. Their performances have seldom been either ambitious or attractive. Each victory was eked out like toothpaste being squeezed from a tube by a miser.

When confronted by the sheer brio and joie de vivre of Roscommon, Galway had no answer. Their only response was the kind of listless peevishness epitomised by Sean Kelly and Eamonn Brannigan's injury-time booking after an altercation with the Roscommon defenders. They weren't long on as subs and time was running out for Galway but this was the only thing these two gifted attackers could offer.

Right now Galway are squandering their talent. Shane Walsh looked electrifying at times but too many of his team-mates expected him to work wonders on his own. Galway passed the buck as often as the ball.

Roscommon are not All-Ireland contenders. But they are an inspiring case study in the maximisation of resources. There is a new flintiness about them under Cunningham, a man once able to thoroughly rattle the sanguine Brian Cody and get under the skin of the greatest team ever to play gaelic games.

Conor Cox's Kerry nous is an addition and his marvellous point five minutes into injury-time had a real Kingdom confidence to it. But, despite the massive contribution of both Cunningham and Cox, this win was rooted in Roscommon tradition.

That tradition was most memorably illustrated when Shane Killoran rode two tackles before firing an inspirational point eleven minutes from time. Twenty-eight years ago, Shane's father and fellow midfielder Seamus was giving a man-of-the-match performance in a Connacht final against Mayo.

Memories

Roscommon's tigerish defensive display evoked memories of Harry Keegan and Pat Lindsay and rewarded the bravery of Cunningham's selection decisions. Only one member of the back-line from last year's Connacht final started yesterday and only half a dozen of the first fifteen. The starting line-up did not contain a single player from county finalists St Brigids and Clann na nGael, who dominate club football in Roscommon.

Instead the defence was built around a quartet of players from Padraig Pearses, three of them the Daly brothers, a triumvirate of hardy hoors whose attitude and talent is to be admired. There was something mesmerising about Niall's sally upfield to land the crucial 58th-minute point which gave Roscommon a lead they never lost.

At the end the Rossies stormed the pitch with the unity of purpose possible in a county small enough for most of its inhabitants to know each other. The men of Roscommon are marching again. And Anthony Cunningham has entered his house justified.

There won't be a sheep stolen for a week.

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