Roscommon aim to avoid dizzy spell on high ground
A gradual return to football's top flight ensures delight is mixed with apprehension in the county
There's no space left in the admittedly tight precincts of Kiltoom for Roscommon's first match in Division 1 since 2003.
The capacity is under 3,000 for their meeting with Monaghan this afterrnoon, forcing the county board to make it an all-ticket affair. Demand for tickets is probably double what's available. Many will be disappointed to miss out.
You could be annoyed, justifiably, but there is some consolation in a deferred broadcast by TG4 and the overriding pride in the county at being back in the top tier. Whether they belong there will be made known over the course of the next seven matches, a trip to Killarney following swiftly in a week's time.
Adding pep to the step of those fortunate enough to be ticket-holders - with Hyde Park declared unplayable - is the breezy anticipation of a new beginning in another significant respect: the management pairing of Kevin McStay and one of Roscommon's most indomitable characters, Fergal O'Donnell.
O'Donnell has been through almost every conceivable Roscommon experience - lived the highs and lows. In 2001, he was captain when they won the Connacht senior title. Five years later he managed the minors to win an All-Ireland. In his first year as senior manager he watched his team being ripped apart by Mayo, relegated to Division 4 the following spring, then almost perversely win the province a few months on.
He has been back with the minors and now he is involved in the senior set-up again, the feeling being that the last time he left he only did so because the resources he felt were needed for Roscommon to be a serious football county weren't forthcoming. It had to be done right or not at all.
He and McStay share a long and successful association. A settled Roscommon resident whose kids show allegiance to primrose and blue, McStay took up with Roscommon Gaels when he moved into the county in the early 1990s, then in his final years as a player. O'Donnell was a young footballer with the Gaels at the time and together, McStay as captain, they won a county title in 1994. Ten years later, with O'Donnell a veteran, McStay managed the team to another title. When John Evans was surprisingly let go, McStay made it a condition that O'Donnell would be his partner if he were to take over. For Karol Mannion, who played for the county when they were in Division 1 and also experienced a season in Division 4, the appointment leaves him envious of those players who stand to benefit from their management.
"I was delighted to see the two lads going in even though I thought John (Evans) would have got another year. My best days in football were with them as managers with (St) Brigid's and Roscommon, I have massive respect for them. I imagine it must be a joy to play under the two of them.
"They are very different characters. I just think their clarity of thought will be good for Roscommon. They are good leaders. Fergal is a great man to inspire you, to get the passion into it, to get the team motivated. Whereas Kevin is a little more reserved and calculating, Both are great communicators in their own right, They push the right buttons. I improved a lot under Fergal - I didn't have a great career with Roscommon up to then, up and down; he made my last three or four years with Roscommon very enjoyable. With Kevin we had a fantastic year with Brigid's. Even if we hadn't won the All-Ireland it would have been great year."
The excitement of being back in Division 1 is tempered by the memory of their chastening experiences in the championship that followed. "When they won the Division 2 final it seemed everything was right and going great," says Mannion. "The championship definitely put a bit of a dampener on league promotion. People are a bit tentative considering the standard we are coming up against. We're delighted to be playing there but there is apprehension over how we will get on."
Mannion came into the Roscommon squad in 2002 and went through the usual swings of fortune before retirement two years ago. "I came from a group of players who were playing at a very high level, getting to All-Ireland quarter-finals, and to go down to Division 4 was terrible. It was Fergal's first or second year, it obviously wasn't good for him. Things have turned round, the team has steadily improved since. Winning Connacht in 2010 gave a boost to the panel from a confidence perspective and young lads coming off successful underage teams also helped. I see it as a gradual rise. With a county like Roscommon it has to be gradual with the (low) playing numbers."
Roscommon's performances at underage have enjoyed an obvious lift approaching the tenth anniversary of their memorable All-Ireland win at minor. In Connacht, they've won four of the last six under 21 titles, having taken 30 years to win the previous four at the grade. They later lost two All-Ireland finals to Dublin. Their two provincial minor wins since 2006 have come in the last five years.
In 2011, they made quick work of the task of winning promotion from Division 4, topping the division after going through their campaign unbeaten. "We decided we had to get back out of there as fast as we could," says Mannion. "Playing the likes of Kilkenny you have to put the head down and get on with it. You are better for it in the end, you realise how good it is to be playing at the level they are playing today." Two years were spent in the third tier before successive promotions brought them into the company they share today. John Evans' good work was undermined by a poor championship, losing in Sligo and going out in the qualifiers to Fermanagh after blowing a strong lead.
History shows Roscommon have no right to complacency when playing Sligo. But when they lost to them in Markievicz Park they looked to have been mugged. "There was probably a touch of complacency," says Mannion. "People played injured, and maybe after the high of winning the Division 2 final against Down, they were vulnerable but they were a pale shadow of themselves. And on the night they just made really bad errors. Sligo got a run on them at midfield and that's the way it happened. It was a bit of an ambush. The game ran away from Roscommon. It was a massive dunt for the panel."
Some, with the benefit of hindsight, feel the warning signs were there when they played London in the provincial quarter-finals. Having recovered to defeat Cavan, they looked poised for another victory in the third round of the qualifiers in Enniskillen when leading by six points with 13 minutes to play, before being overtaken by a late Fermanagh rally.
Evans hinted at the dangers after last year's league concluded. "The biggest problem we'll have is trying to calm them down a small bit and say one step at a time. It's how we cope with this now. This is the big question. How do we cope with winning two successive finals in Croke Park? If it takes the edge off us, then it's no good to us."
Injuries were a difficulty for the last management and added resources have been secured by the current regime to beef up the medical team to provide improved screening, better rehab facilities and general expertise. A number of players are at different stages of recovery but they've been compensated by the return of some players who had drifted off the county team in recent years.
Staying up in Division 1 is a tall order. "A lot of it I think is down to confidence," says Mannion. "All of those players have played on teams through colleges, Railway Cup or underage where they have shown they are as good as what's there. It is a confidence thing when it gets to this level. They have to feel they are good enough to be there.
"It would be a great achievement (staying up). But I don't think that it would be absolutely fatal if, say, they were to win three games and go down by a point or two - provided we were really competitive. It would be something to stand to them in the summer ahead. It is in the championship where Roscommon really do need to re-establish themselves."
The new management team includes a good spread of coaching talent. David Casey from Boyle, a former inter-county player whose career was stunted by injury, guided St Croan's to the All-Ireland intermediate final a year ago. Stephen Hoban, another Roscommon native, assisted the county minors who won the 2006 All-Ireland, while Liam McHale has past experience of working with McStay with St Brigid's and a long involvement in coaching at the highest level.
If Roscommon are to stay up they will be looking at today's match as one of their targets, one of four home matches that also feature visits from Down, Mayo (on Easter Sunday) and Dublin, in the last round on April 3. They face difficult away assignments in Kerry, Cork and Donegal.
Even with some players still on the injured list, Roscommon are well prepared for this first challenge, the shame being that more can't be there to see it. Beyond the team there is still plenty of ground to make up. They are the only county in the province without a training facility for their county teams. Already they have had to move the FBD game against Mayo from Roscommon to Castlebar because the Hyde wasn't fit to host it.
There is a plan to redevelop Hyde Park and provide a new playing surface, which is long overdue, ideally for the start of next year's league. They will hope that by then the county will have the same calibre of matches to look forward as they have now.
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