Monday 17 June 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Putting the fun back into football'

Roscommon’s Enda Smith celebrates with supporters following their Connacht SFC semi-final victory over. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Roscommon’s Enda Smith celebrates with supporters following their Connacht SFC semi-final victory over. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Thank God for Roscommon and Longford, football's little counties that can. For years now, they've made the very best use of limited resources, redefining the possibilities for smaller operators and improving a football championship in need of every boost it can get.

They were at it again last weekend. On Saturday night Roscommon travelled to Castlebar to meet a Mayo team recently crowned Allianz League champions and viewed as Dublin's leading rivals in this year's championship. The visitors hadn't won a championship game at McHale Park in 33 years but edged an excellent game by a point.

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The following day saw another thriller as Longford wiped out a seven-point deficit to bring their match against Kildare in Tullamore into extra-time and then came from behind again to force a replay.

Mayo and Kildare had been hot favourites, yet the results were not all that surprising. This is the kind of thing Longford and Roscommon like to do at this time of the year. They may be in the bottom six of counties numbers-wise, with Roscommon having less than half the population of Mayo and Longford less than 20 per cent of Kildare's, but such stats don't appear to weigh on their minds.

Last year Longford knocked Meath out of the Leinster championship and in 2016 defeated both Down and Monaghan away from home in the qualifiers. They've scored three qualifier wins over Derry, brought an end to John O'Mahony's reign as Mayo manager in 2010 and the year before that ran a title-bound Kerry team close. Not bad for a county with less than half the pick of Laois.

There's also been the ultimate miracle club campaign, Mullinalaghta's annexation of last year's Leinster Club Championship by defeating Kilmacud Crokes in the final, confirming the midland county's belief that the size of the fight in the dog can be more important than the size of the dog in the fight.

Roscommon have also defied demographic disadvantage on a regular basis, reaching the Super 8 last year, turning over Galway in the Connacht final and holding Mayo to a draw in the All-Ireland quarter-final the year before that, winning away to Kerry, Cork and Donegal en route to a league semi-final in 2015.

Overachievement is a Roscommon speciality. In 2012 and 2014 they reached All-Ireland under 21 finals before falling short against exceptional Dublin teams. In 2013 St Brigid's went one better when, after falling eight points behind in the first 10 minutes, they vanquished Ballymun Kickhams in the All-Ireland club final.

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Just two weeks ago another eight-point deficit was overcome as the county minors defeated Galway in the Connacht semi-final. Roscommon teams have come back from the dead so many times you'd swear George Romero was managing them.

The fact that I've worked in both Roscommon and Longford might make me slightly partial, but even an utterly objective observer can't deny how well they've performed vis-a-vis rivals of similar size. Leitrim don't punch above their weight like Longford do while Sligo can only envy what Roscommon achieve. Wicklow and Louth, whose populations comfortably exceed those of Longford and Roscommon combined, are much lesser football forces.

So what's the secret? There is an enormous passion for football in Longford for one thing. Its club attendances were healthy during my time there but more striking was the ferocity of its local rivalries. I can remember league derbies, which might have been regarded as mere pre-championship skirmishes in other counties, being contested with enormous fervour in places like Granard, Drumlish and Ballinalee.

Perhaps that passion lends Longford its defining quality, a refusal to despair. The game is obviously rigged against them, yet Longford seems less prone to self-pity than some other Leinster counties. There is a gritty quality to the place which sees their teams get the maximum out of themselves.

Roscommon is different. Not just from Longford but from everywhere else. The Rossies are often accused of arrogance by their neighbours in Leitrim, Sligo and Longford. I think they'd probably plead guilty to the charge. Believing that their main task in Connacht is to compete with Galway and Mayo rather than with Sligo and Leitrim requires a certain amount of arrogance.

The self-belief engendered by the unlikely and glorious All-Ireland victories of 1943 and 1944 has never really left Roscommon. Not alone are they the smallest county to win an All-Ireland senior title, they're also the smallest county to have won under 21, minor and club titles. They believe that they belong among football's elite. Their response to being described as a small county would probably be, "Who? Us?"

Sometimes this ambition can lead to them being badly exposed as they were in 2017's replay against Mayo and last year's Super 8. But it also breeds the mindset which enabled them last week, while under pressure and playing with 14 men, to break out and work a winning score in injury-time.

Roscommon's maverick flamboyance is illustrated by such distinctive local products as Ming Flanagan, John Waters and Shane Curran. It's also apparent in the way their great forwards have loved taking on a shot from an apparently impossible angle. That quality defined Jigger O'Connor, Tony McManus, Frankie Dolan and is also there in Enda Smith. The difference between Longford and Roscommon may be the difference between the rugged honesty of Mick Flavin and the more baroque showmanship of Brendan Shine.

What both counties have in common is a lack of fear, which makes them a breath of fresh air in a cautious age. Contrast their approach with that of Fermanagh against Donegal on Sunday. Stymied by the same lack of resources as Roscommon and Longford, Fermanagh had decided to accentuate the negative, opting for damage limitation and keeping the score down.

A team playing the game like that is unlikely to ship the kind of beating both Longford and Roscommon took from Dublin last year, but they're also unlikely to create many shocks. Roscommon got plenty of players back against Mayo but were never short of numbers up front the way Fermanagh were in Brewster Park.

Longford's exploits disprove the idea that smaller counties have no business mixing with the bigger ones. A tiered championship now seems an inevitability and you can argue that Longford shouldn't be in the same competition as Dublin and Kerry. Saying they belong a level below the likes of Kildare, Meath, Cork and Down (all of whom one suspects are envisaged as being in a top tier by those GAA bods currently dreaming up the new system) is a different matter.

In its presumption that counties should be judged by the perception of where they stand rather than their actual performances, this reeks of ill-judged condescension. As indeed did RTE's treatment of Longford last weekend. That probably the most exciting game of the weekend, and one which could have been anticipated as a thriller after last year's meeting between the teams in the qualifiers, received less than three minutes was bad enough.

But adding insult to injury was that a worthless piece on Dublin fans embarking on their odyssey to Portlaoise for the game against Louth lasted longer. RTE's contempt for the Longfords of this world was palpable. If they get treated like this while they're part of the main championship, can you imagine what it will be like when they're in a second division championship?

You don't even have to imagine it. You just need to look at RTE's complete ignorance of the Joe McDonagh Cup where, for example, Kerry's great victory over Westmeath last Sunday was not even mentioned on The Sunday Game.

I've criticised the GAA's Sky deal but I'm changing my mind. Not because of the excellence of the Sky coverage or the financial benefits accruing to the Association, but because RTE's coverage is so lazy and takes Gaelic games so much for granted. Imagine how bad it would be if they had no rivals at all.

This year's football championship is already dying on the vine. We've seen performances by Mayo, Galway, Monaghan and Donegal which suggest they're in no position to challenge Dublin. The Super 8 promise to be even less super than last year. The Fermanagh-Donegal match looked like an effort to prove that the GAA possesses not only the world's fastest field game but also the most boring one.

The whole thing is a drag and fans are voting with their feet. That two double-headers involving Dublin, Kildare and Meath could only draw a total of 24,000 spectators speaks eloquently of supporter alienation from the game. If you'd predicted that combined attendance when the fixtures were made, Croke Park would have mocked you as a doom monger.

It's almost impossible to feel enthusiastic about this year's football championship, but last weekend Roscommon and Longford did their best to save the honour of the competition. We should all be grateful to them.

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